Ancient Christian texts lost to ISIS vandalism in Iraq

The burning of historic and irreplaceable Christian texts is among reports of the damage inflicted on the ancient Syriac Catholic Mar Behnam monastery in Iraq following its liberation from so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

Troops led by the Christian Babylon Brigades reached the site in the town of Khidir Ilyas last week as the advance against ISIS fighters in Mosul continued. Khidir Ilyas lies some 30kms south of Mosul.

Now, liberating forces have recounted finding not just the surface graffiti and vandalism as discovered at other religious sites in recent weeks, but the complete loss of the 4th Century monastery’s extensive library of texts and books. 


According to the leader of the Babylon Brigades, identified in reports as Duraid Elias, his men found evidence of a concerted effort on the part of ISIS members to erase all traces of Christianity in the monastery since the seizure of the compound in 2014. Crosses and statues were smashed, religious iconography defaced, and the invaders had even taken the time to scratch away any written text in the Syriac language.

However, it is additionally reported that far from being a site to be destroyed – though parts were blown up in 2015 –  Mar Behnam was seized by ISIS for use by its so-called morality police, which made the monastery its headquarters in the area. There is evidence that the monks’ quarters were used as cells to hold transgressors against the strict interpretations of Islamic law ISIS brought. 

Mar Behnam monastery is said to have been established by the pagan King Sennacherib in atonement for his earlier killing of his children Berhnam and Sarah after their conversions to Christianity, reputedly by St Matthew. The monastery is said to have been built over their tombs. King Sennacherib would later convert to Christianity on his death-bed.

The monastery subsequently became a great site of pilgrimage until cut off from the world by ISIS and claimed by that group.

“Their goal was to destroy Christian history and civilisation in the Nineveh plains,” Elias said of the destruction meted out on the store of theological history. However, he added of the ongoing fight to repulse ISIS: “We are proving to the world that Christians are not weak. We are stronger than they imagined.”