On the plains of Nineveh, the renaissance of a Dominican convent destroyed by jihadists constitutes a sign of hope for Christians still present in the area and a sign of hope for the Iraqi Christian diaspora.
It is a reconstruction that goes “beyond stones and bricks,” and which is a sign of “life and hope for an entire community.” It is with unfeigned emotion that Msgr. Paolo Thabit Mekko, Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Alqosh – a diocese located in Iraqi Kurdistan – retraces the renaissance of the Saint Joseph of Batnaya convent.
Belonging to Dominican sisters, the convent had been destroyed during the occupation of the village by the jihadists of the Islamic State (ISIS) organization.
The convent was rebuilt with help from abroad, inaugurated by Bishop Mekko and reinvested by the sisters on December 18, 2022. It symbolizes the resurrection of an entire region where the followers of ISIS, in their iconoclastic fury, went so far as to decapitate statues in churches and stain the walls with anti-Christian slogans.
“Batnaya became a ghost town after the departure of ISIS, and some wondered if it would still have a future,” recalls Caroline Hull, director of the British branch of Catholic News Agency.
Returning from reporting on the plains of Nineveh, the journalist noted: “The brand new convent for the sisters is a sign that Christianity can still prosper and have a future there.”
Before the occupation of ISIS, Batnaya was one of the most important centers of Christianity on the plain. Until 2014, around 5,000 people - mostly Chaldean Catholics - lived there, but almost all fled when the Islamists arrived, seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Three years later, ISIS was defeated militarily, but in 2023 the reconstruction of the region is still struggling due to the lack of resources, and also because of fears that the jihadists will return. There are also anti-personnel mines buried in the area and the vast system of underground tunnels developed by the jihadists, which further delay reconstruction work.
Among those who have decided to return are the Dominican sisters. In 2017, they temporarily moved into a house made available to them by a Christian from Telskuf, still on the plain, and then returned to their convent once the reconstruction was completed.
For his part, the Bishop of Alqosh wants to believe in the future of the Christians of the plain of Nineveh: “The presence of the sisters. . . is a sign of encouragement for everyone to return to their homes,” said Bishop Mekko hopefully. “Your name and your identity are in Batnaya, your roots are in Batnaya, not in places of emigration,” he says.
And he adds in conclusion: “We, Christians of Iraq, have a deep wound, and it is by faith that this wound will be healed.”