The Pope is in Mosul, once the Biblical city of Nineveh. One man is hoping the Holy Father’s visit will help restore the Iraqi city’s symbol of religious unity: the tomb of Jonah, destroyed by Isis.7 March 2021
As he waited for the Pope in Mosul’s war-battered old city, Faisal Jeber has very good reason to advocate religious tolerance. He’s a Muslim, who was locked up by Islamic State (ISIS) fighters just after the invading extremists captured Mosul. He’s also been accused of crimes and held in prison by segments of the current, fragmented leadership in the city
Accused of being a spy, Jeber was thrown into a cell with dozens of other captives and expected, as cell inmates were led to their deaths, to be killed very soon. Somehow, he survived. — thanks mainly to tribal relatives intervening.
Jeber, like most of Mosul’s citizens, was horrified by the ISIS repression, especially the destruction of the city’s main emblems and claims to fame, the Tomb of Jonah, known in Arabic as Nebi Yunus.
The mosque had been built on top of an Assyrian palace, originally constructed around 700 BC — a fact only (literally) uncovered after Isis fled and a network of tunnels was discovered under the Tomb in 2017. The tunnels had been dug by Isis partly to hide in and partly to mine and sell precious artefacts — a huge source of international revenue for the terrorist group’s ‘Islamic State’, second only to pumping and smuggling oil.
Today, in front of the main church destroyed by Isis, the Pope, who arrived in a black armoured car, made a plea for the victims of war. There were four churches in the square, that were each attacked and damaged or destroyed in the Isis occupation between June 2014 and July 2017.
After flowers were strewn on his car, and crowds ululated in welcome, the Pope also paid tribute to a Catholic priest murdered in 2007. That was long before the Isis invasion, as religious and ethnic tensions caused conflict inside the city, attributed to Islamic hardliners.
The Catholic archbishop in Iraq told him that in the nearby mosque in 2014, the Isis leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had expelled Christians from the city, issuing an ultimatum: pay humiliating taxes, or leave within two days, or if not they would be killed.
“I want the Pope to spearhead the rebuilding of this wonderful place and I am convinced that the main thrust should be rebuilding our symbol, the Tomb of Jonah, not only the rebuilding pf churches and mosques. The Bible says he was a prophet who came to this city, Nineveh, to save its population from God’s destruction for its veil ways. He was a Jew who is also venerated by Christianity and Islam.
“What could be more symbolic than that to help us show we will combat religious extremism and that we have much more similarities than differences?”
Ever since Isis was forced out of the city, experts have been trying to shore up the unstable remains, especially the many subterranean tunnels, but on the surface the walls of this once-beautiful complex look like a remnant of a huge bombing raid.
Jeber also ran a small independent military forced of around 250 men who helped capture the remnants of Isis forces as the fled the city but hid or regrouped in the countryside around Mosul. He is appalled by the factionalism that still dogs the city in its efforts to recover.
The Tomb of Jonah should also have elements of Christianity and Judaism reflected in its reconstruction, according to plans drawn up by Jeber. His commitment to multi-faith recognition, especially of the historic Jewish role in the city, has caused him serious problems with those currently ruling Mosul. he has faced arrest, month-long detentions, and prosecution, though eventually all charges have been dropped.
He still travels around the city incognito, not staying at his own home — concerned that hardliners have him on a death list.
Only 70 of the 500 Christian families who lived here in 2014 have returned.
In a speech in front of the four chruches, the Pope bemoaned “the tragic diminution of Jesus’s disciples here and across the Middle East. [It] does incalculable harm, not only to the individuals and their communities, but also to the societies they leave behind.”
He compared it with one of the country’s famous carpets: “If one small threat is removed, it damages the entirety,” the Pepe said