ROSARIO, Argentina — Dominican Father Olivier Poquillon is currently working in Mosul, Iraq, after serving as the General Secretary of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU (COMECE).
It wasn’t his first time in the country: He taught at the state university in Mosul from 2003-2004, shortly after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
“When I was in Mosul in 2003, our Church was still full, Masses were full, there were youth groups, catechesis, marriages… it was normal pastoral work, even in a place where there were heavy threats and casualties in the Christian communities, like among Muslims and Yazidi. But Christians still represented a critical part of Mosul,” he told Crux.
But things have changed, especially after the Islamic State (also called Daesh) began its offensive in Iraq in 2013.
“Under Daesh, it became impossible to remain. The options were converting, leaving or dying. So Christians became IDPs in the Nineveh Plains, and then when Daesh took control of the Christian villages, they had to flee to Kurdistan or went abroad as refugees,” Poquillon said.
The Christian population in Iraq has since collapsed. Pope Francis is now planning to visit the country in March as a sign of solidarity to those that remain.
“Pope Francis will have the opportunity to see that we’re Christians of various denominations and Muslims engaged alongside one another. This is really fitting with his desire to see people of good will, working together for the common good. And this is a good illustration of what it’s possible to achieve incarnating the idea of human fraternity,” the priest said.
Poquillon spoke to Crux from Erbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, discussing the upcoming March 5-8 trip of Pope Francis to Iraq, the future of Christianity in the Middle East, and the storming of the U.S Capitol on Wednesday. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
Crux: Can you tell us about your arrival in Iraq?
I came here at the end of my mandate at COMECE in August 2019. I had been in Iraq in 2003-2004, teaching at the state university in Mosul.
The first time I was assigned as a Dominican here, was just after the arrival of the US troops in 2003, just in the moment when they first arrived. So it was the fall of Saddam Hussein, he was still hidden, arrested, etc. At that time, the main threat was mostly Al Qaeda and other groups.
One of the things that has changed between that first time and now is the size of the Christian population in Iraq. How has it impacted your ministry to see so many families leave?
About the Christian population, we know that figures are not “trendy” in Scripture. When the people are trying to count and give accurate figures, God is not responding in a very positive way, so it’s always hard to speak about figures of Christians in the region.
But we know that Christians began leaving the country before the U.S invasion. Before, they had to suffer from the Iraq-Iran war, with many Christians involved in the Iraqi forces. Then there were 13 years of embargo which really damaged the educational, economic and social context of the country. And it became harder and harder to live together, with less possibilities emerging and less future opportunities for the children.
Then came the big shock of the invasion in 2003, when Christians who were considered as full members of the national community, historical part landscape, became targeted by terrorist groups and criminal activities. They found no real future in the land of their ancestors. When I was in Mosul in 2003, our Church was still full, Masses were full, there were youth groups, catechesis, marriages… it was normal pastoral work, even in a place where there were heavy threats and casualties in the Christian communities, like among Muslims and Yazidi. But Christians still represented a critical part of Mosul.
Now, this is no longer the case: Christians have been expelled, first by sectarian and criminal violence and then by Daesh. Under Daesh, it became impossible to remain. The options were converting, leaving or dying. So Christians became IDPs in the Nineveh Plains, and then when Daesh took control of the Christian villages, they had to flee to Kurdistan or went abroad as refugees.
So now, the pastoral activity in the city of Mosul itself is very limited. There are around 50 Christian families, one Syriac Catholic priest living full time, with others coming to say Mass and leaving. From 2014, the Christian population increased a lot in Erbil. Most Christians here are IDPs from the Nineveh Plain and Mosul as well as Syrian refugees. So a most of our pastoral activities revolve around them. As the Latin Parish for the North of Iraq, we are also in charge of the migrant workers mainly from the Philippines, India and Africa, who came to work in companies or houses following 2014’s events all together with International and NGO staff members, something we didn’t use to have.
The face of the Christian community changed quite a lot in 20 years.
What made me reach out to you was a tweet on the reconstruction of the Monastery of Notre Dame de l’Heure, in Mosul. At what point in the past 20 years was it destroyed?
Al Sah means “the hour,” comes from the prayer, Hail Mary and from the presence on the tower bell of our Dominican Convent of the first clock of Mesopotamia.
Around 2006 the situation became really difficult in Mosul. It was slowly becoming impossible to live full time in the monastery. So the brothers moved the center of their activity to Quaraqosh, once the biggest Christian city in the Nineveh Plains. We were still commuting to celebrate Mass and care for the building. But when ISIS arrived, they took possession of the monastery and used it during all the occupation as a criminal Islamic court. That probably saved the building itself.
The last restoration had been in the 1990s, so the building itself had been strong enough to resist blasts.
It turned from a place of peace and encounter, where the first pontifical mission in Mesopotamia was based – before Iraq was Iraq – to one of violence. Historically, the monastery was also the place from where the first school for girls of Mesopotamia was established, also the first printing facility and the first clock. The clock was a gift from the Empress Eugénie of France, the wife of Napoleon III. It gave the name to the neighborhood and the crossroad. It’s really at the heart of the old city.
It’s a place with a high historical value, not only for its architecture, but also as a place of encounter. It’s in the crossroad physically speaking, but also culturally speaking, historically speaking, and socially speaking.
The building was partially destroyed during the liberation of Mosul by the Iraqi forces. During these fights, a missile fell on the rectory and the stairs. Prior to this, the tower bell, a symbol of Mosul, was partially destroyed. Daesh made a big hole inside to steal the bells and the clock, probably to sell them. Then after the fall of Daesh, there was a looting campaign to steal all the metal and stones. So the place became like a supermarket for thieves, because there was nobody left in the old city, only dead bodies, booby-traps, landmines and explosive devices.
We still have the roof on the top of the church, which is quite exceptional. And the place is much less damaged than the other two places being rebuilt by UNESCO, with the funding of the United Arab Emirates, which are the great Mosque of al-Nuri, and the Syriac Catholic Cathedral.
The minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri was very famous. It was the main symbol of the city, printed on the Iraqi bank notes. It was blown up by DAESH, like all places of worship where Muslims, Christians, and in the past Jews, were worshiping God together.
They didn’t even respect their own symbols?
They destroyed the Great Mosque of al-Nuri from where [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi, had proclaimed his so-called caliphate.
It’s consistent with their theology. Their vision of what Islam should be and Muslims do is iconoclast. They really tried to destroy all the places and objects of devotion where people would gather, like also the grave of prophet Jonah, next to the Tigris river.
How’s the reconstruction coming and who’s helping you fund it?
Two years ago, we were approached by UNESCO, saying that they were willing to rebuild our monastery. Originally there was a plan to restore the old city of Mosul, firstly focusing on one emblematic place, which was the Great Mosque. Then, Pope Francis went to the United Arab Emirates, the first by a pope to the Arabic peninsula, and there he signed the declaration on human fraternity, together with the Head of Al-Azar university, recalling that we are sharing the same destiny. Then, there was the visit by Pope Francis to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, with the king of Morocco, who is also a religious leader. One key point of the declarations was by the idea of moving out from status of minority to full citizenship, with full implication of all the components of society for the common good.
Following these, the United Arab Emirates proposed to the Syriac Church and the Dominicans to restore the places of worship to inspire Christians to come back, or at least, involve themselves back in Mosul, the biggest Sunni city of Iraq. Today, for some people in Mosul, especially in the young generation, the time of diversity — when Christians, Yezidis, Kurdish, Turkmens, Jews, Shiites were living all together with Arabic Sunnis — is seen as a lost prosperous and peaceful golden age they would like to restore.
Would it be fair to summarize your response by saying that the reconstruction of the monastery is one of the consequences of the joint declaration on Human Fraternity?
Yes, it’s especially fair to say that for the Emirates. When they signed the additional protocol to include the reconstruction of the monastery by UNESCO, the Emirates minister told me in very clear terms that they hoped Christians would return. And this is very important, because we can restore buildings; but first, we need to rebuild trust.
In this perspective, this program is very helpful because it gives rare opportunities to Christians and Muslims to work all together. Because the mosque and the monastery are being rebuilt by Christians and Muslims working together.
Since the fall of Daesh, there haven’t been many possibilities for Muslims and Christians to work together. But because the request for rebuilding this church more than another one was made by the people of Mosul, who see it as a part of their landscape, even if today 99 percent of the population is Arabic Sunni: Very few Christians, Kurds, Yazidis, Mandeans, nearly all of them having left and are yet to come back.
The last time I met with the person responsible of the Great Mosque, he said he wanted to hear the bells of our monastery ring again, as they did when he was a kid. Like many other Muslims in Mosul he had studied in a Catholic school. And he’s a Muslim.
Half of the population in Iraq is under 20. They’re dreaming of this golden age when people lived in peace with one another. And they’re amongst the ones who’re investing the most in this rebuilding process. I’m optimistic with the youth!
You’ve mentioned that Christians and other have been target of terrorism. Do you ever ask yourself “Why am I here when I could be in Europe?”
Iraq is a historical part of my Dominican province. According to tradition, it is also the place of Abraham and of Jonah. Abraham seen as the father of all believers and Jonah as a sign of conversion. Jonas first resisted to the Lord’s call, but eventually went to Ninawa (the old name of Mosul) to proclaim the Mercy of God for all and to convert himself to God. Much like him, as a religious – I’m a Dominican — I might complain, but I go! After spending years in headquarters, it is very rewarding to be able to go back to work with others at the grassroots level answering to a need. I see that as a gift, a blessing.
I’m excited with the reconstruction. With COVID, Iraq is facing a huge economic and social crisis, with the prices of oil and gas going down, which means no more resources for the state and high numbers of unemployment. What I hope is that this money being invested by the Emirates to rebuild these sites, will be for the common good of the people. Because restoring the buildings is very important, but only men are made at the image and likeness of God.
We need to restore trust by working together in a common project because we’re sharing a common destiny.
Do you hope that Pope Francis, when he visits Iraq in March, will go to the monastery in Mosul?
We know that the program is to visit Ur, the place of Abraham, Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh. We hope that in Mosul, Pope Francis will have the opportunity to see what we’re Christians of various denominations and Muslims engaged alongside one another. This is really fitting with his desire to see people of good will, working together for the common good. And this is a good illustration of what it’s possible to achieve incarnating the idea of human fraternity.
We hope that we’ll have the chance not only to receive his visit, which is an honor for Iraq, this suffering member of the human family, but also, to pray together and to ask for God’s blessing for all the inhabitants of this land.
Many chapters of the scriptures, of the history of salvation, took place here, for better or worse. It’s a place of origin and also a place of conversion, where we have to turn back to what’s essential.
On Wednesday’s storming of the U.S. Capitol. Seeing what’s happening in the U.S. being in Argentina, makes me fear for our democracy. How did you react when you saw this from Iraq?
Here, everybody was fearing that before the end of his mandate, Donald Trump could do something potentially deadly for us, perhaps an escalation of violence due to a will to mark history. But there are two aspects to what happened yesterday: First, for Iraqis, the U.S. was teaching them democracy, but now, they’re struggling to save it. So, there’s a spirit of discredit in the population. But there’s also a feeling of “we’re all in the same boat,” and the problems we’re facing here, where the State is trying to retake control of the resources and security forces, is a universal challenge.
So, there was fear maybe due to the instability, but also hope that this will lead people to take their own destiny in their hands to engage for the common good without waiting for solutions coming from abroad.
Know that we’re praying for the U.S. and the people in the U.S.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma