ISIS Digs Up Bones of Martyred Christian Saint as Jihadis Bulldoze Ancient 1,600-Year-Old Monastery

Frescos painted on the walls of Mar Elain Monastery in Syria seen in this undated photo.
Frescos painted on the walls of Mar Elain Monastery in Syria seen in this undated photo. | (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Islamic State terrorist group has released pictures and video purporting to show militants bulldozing a nearly 1,600-year-old Christian monastery, while a claim has been made that the jihadis have also dug up and desecrated the bones of a martyred Christian saint.

As Islamic State captured the Syrian town of al-Qaryatain in the Homs province and kidnapped over 230 Syriac Christians earlier this month in what was deemed ISIS' biggest military advance since it took over the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra in May, it's believed that some of the kidnapped Christians were taken from the town's ancient Syriac Catholic Mar Elian Monastery.

This week, IS-affiliated social media accounts posted images and footage showing the destruction of the monastery, which was founded in the year 432 and was also the location where priest Jacques Mourad and a church volunteer was abducted in May.

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The monastery was built on the spot believed to be where Saint Elian was killed by his father, a Roman officer, for refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus. Mourad had been working since 1991 to rebuild and restore the monastery.

According to the British news site the Express, one video posted online purports to show militants removing what are believed to be the bones of Saint Elian from a stone sarcophagus. However, that claim has not been verified and could just be speculation since IS has previously desecrated the tombs of other saints and prophets.

A Christian clergyman told The Associated Press that militants also demolished a church inside the monastery that dated back to the fifth century, while a resident from the town said the militants destroyed a shrine and removed church bells.

"It was an important pilgrimage site for the surrounding Christian community," Nicholas al-Jeloo, a University of Melbourne expert on Assyrian monasteries in Iraq, told the International Business Times.

IS has made it a tradition to destroy ancient Christian monasteries in towns the group conquers.

Earlier this year, IS blew up parts of the Mar Behnam Monastery located in the Iraqi Christian town of Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plains. In doing so, IS fighters posted photos showing the militants destroying the tomb complex of Saint Sarah and Saint Behnam, a fourth century Christian martyr revered Syriac churches.

In March, IS militants desecrated statues, murals and paintings in the St. George Chaldean Catholic monastery near Mosul. In 2014, IS destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul.

"They're doing this gradually. They scared the people away and now they're destroying these people's heritage. I don't understand: why would you do that? Why destroy something [that's] not yours?" al-Jeloo asked. "No palace, monastery, church, ruins is ours to destroy. It's the world's property. That's why I'm concerned the world's community is not doing enough to stop IS."

As al-Jeloo says the international community is not doing enough to stop IS from destroying all traces Christian history from the part of the world where Christianity was birthed, a displaced Iraqi nun told members of the United States Congress in May that the terrorists are aiming to "wipe Earth clean" of Christian history.

"Why should we leave our country? What have we done? The Christians of Iraq are the first people of the land," Sister Diana Momeka told a House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Uprooted and forcefully displaced, we have realized that IS' plan is to evacuate the land of Christians and wipe the Earth clean of any evidence that we existed. This is cultural and human genocide. The only Christians that remain in the Plain of Nineveh are those who are held hostage."

Although history is filled with examples of Christian persecution, Momeka explained that even her ancestors didn't see the degree of persecution that Christians in Iraq and Syria are facing today. Hundreds of thousands of Christians in the region have been forced to leave their homes to flee for the safety of the Kurdish north and neighboring countries.

"While our ancestors experienced all kinds of persecution, they stayed in their land, building a culture that has served humanity for the ages," Momeka continued. "But the current persecution that our community is facing is the most brutal in our history. Not only have we been robbed of our homes, property and land, but our heritage is being destroyed as well. IS continues to demolish and bomb our churches, cultural artifacts and sacred places like Mar Behnam and his Sister Sara, a fourth century monastery, and St. George's Monastery in Mosul."

IS is not the only culprit in the destruction of the Mar Elian Monastery, according to the director of the Christian Assyrian Human Rights Network, Osama Edward, who told The Wall Street Journal that regime shelling in the area had already caused noticeable damage to the monastery over the past two weeks.

The terror group has also reported transferred the Christians they abducted when taking over al-Qaryatain earlier this month to Raqqa, the de-facto capital of IS' caliphate and a town where the organization has been known to auction sex slaves.

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