From the devastating war in 2003 to the three-year occupation of Mosul by Islamic State militants, Iraq is often portrayed as a land caught in a spiral of violence and perennially doomed to remain in a state of instability.
However, for Dominican Fr. Olivier Poquillon, Iraq is steadily rising from the ashes of war and taking its rightful place among the community of nations.
“When one is thinking about Iraq, people are usually thinking about a devastated country, about war, about suffering,” Father Poquillon told OSV News February 17.
While Iraq has also faced the global challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of economic inflation, the Dominican priest said the country is on the path toward rebuilding a lasting foundation for the new generation.
“I will quote one journalist who accompanied Pope Francis’ visit. And she said, ‘You see, Father, it is the first time I’m reporting positively about Iraq,’” he recalled. “And I think now, Iraq is in a new dynamic following the events that took place in 2014 to 2017. Now Iraq is trying to rebuild and, I would say, build something new because the old generations are in a (sense) gone and the population is very young; 40% of the population is under 14 years old.”
Father Poquillon is representing the Dominicans to the UNESCO flagship program “Revive the Spirit of Mosul,” an initiative that intends to rebuild the ancient city and its historical and religious landmarks that were destroyed or heavily damaged during the devastating occupation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, commonly known as ISIL.
Among the ancient sites that a team of architects, historians and experts are aiming to rebuild are the Al-Nouri Mosque, including its famed Al-Hadba Minaret, and the Notre-Dame de l’Heure (Our Lady of the Hour) Convent.
The Dominicans arrived in Iraq in the 13th century, and, hundreds of years later, founded the convent, which featured a clock tower that housed bells and a timepiece donated to the order by the wife of Napoleon III, Empress Eugenie.
Father Poquillon said the convent serves as “a crossroad; a crossroad between neighborhoods, a crossroad between communities and a crossroad between civilizations.”
“We brought some techniques, not to erase the local culture, but to promote it,” he said. “This bell tower has four sides: north, south, east, west, but one single hour for all. We have one single God, but each one is trying to approach or turn to God according to his (or) her own cultural background, tradition, and language.”
Sadly, he said, during the Islamic State”s occupation, “the convent was converted into a place of death, where people were trained to do evil.”
“For us, the challenge is to turn it back to light, to convert it,” Father Poquillon told OSV News. “It is a conversion back to its original destination, that is, to promote life and life in everything.”
The UNESCO program also is working toward rebuilding the Al-Tahera Syriac Catholic Church, which Pope Francis visited during his historic pilgrimage to Iraq in March 2021.
Standing outside the ruins of Al-Tahera, the pope led a prayer service for the victims of war at Hosh al-Bieaa, the square outside the ruins of the famed church, where he exclaimed that the voices of hope and peace “can never be silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction.”
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people — Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, who were cruelly eliminated by terrorism, and others — forcibly displaced or killed,” the Pope said.
Reflecting on the Pope’s visit, now approaching its second anniversary, Father Poquillon told OSV News that the pope’s message emphasized that the only way forward in rebuilding is through Christians and Muslims working together.
There is “no solution for the Christians without a solution for the surrounding Muslims,” he said. “We are on the same boat.”
“We are together. Humanity is one. And that was the message of Pope Francis when he came,” Father Poquillon continued.
Noting that Mosul, the capital of Nineveh which, according to Scripture, was saved from God’s judgment after repenting after hearing Jonah prophesy its destruction, Father Poquillon said the city is “a place of conversion” toward unity for all its inhabitants.
“This is our process and this is what we are trying to do,” he said. “Today for the Christians, for example, there is this Synod of Bishops, and I hope that the continental phase that just took place in Lebanon will contribute to building this unity, to deepen this unity through Christ our Lord.”