Chaplains Struggle to Protect Monastery in Iraq Built in the sixth century, Saint Elijah's is Iraq's oldest Christian monastery. But the monastery was badly damaged during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq four years ago. Some are now struggling to protect it.
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Chaplains Struggle to Protect Monastery in Iraq

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Chaplains Struggle to Protect Monastery in Iraq

Chaplains Struggle to Protect Monastery in Iraq

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We go now to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. There, on a patch of sloping hillside next to a junkyard of destroyed Iraqi army tanks, sits Iraqi's oldest Christian monastery. Saint Elijah's is a fortress-like complex that's 1,500 years old. It was badly damaged during the U.S. invasion in 2003 four years ago. Now some American soldiers are struggling to protect the ancient Chaldean Catholic monastery.

NPR's Eric Westervelt has that story.

ERIC WESTERVELT: At one time, the fresh water creek and surrounding hills -prime grazing land - made this valley a sweet spot for early Christian monks to build a place to live and worship. But today rusting Russian-made Iraqi tanks and bombed out car shells are piled in a junkie adjacent to the monastery.

First Calvary Division soldier Private First Class Nathaniel Irvine(ph) walks carefully around shards of old pottery. Chunks of old plates and clay jug-handles litter the monastery's grounds, along with shrapnel from tank and mortar rounds.

U.S. soldiers have removed more than 130 pieces of unexploded ordinance from the site, but there could be more.

Private First Class NATHANIEL IRVINE (1st Cavalry Division): We have it all over. There's actually a fuse embedded in the wall on the top.


Private First Class IRVINE: A fuse.

WESTERVELT: It's believed Mar Elia or St. Elijah's Monastery was built in the late 6th century by early Chaldean Assyrian Catholic monks. Armies under Persian ruler Tahmaz Shah attacked and looted the place in the early 17th century, slaughtering the three dozen monks who lived here. By Chaldean tradition, monks' bones were often buried in the monastery walls. And on this windy hillside, Irvine says soldiers have found what they believe are human remains sticking out of the crumbling walls in a tunnel.

Private First Class IRVINE: And if you look inside down there, there is a bone that they've found down there. So it's believed they're probably buried in these two tunnels.

WESTERVELT: Today, the eastern outer wall of the monastery's chapel looks as though it was swatted by the hand of a giant, but it was no giant. It was the U.S. anti-tank missile fired in 2003 by advancing 101st Airborne soldiers battling an Iraqi tank unit based in and around the monastery.

Private First Class IRVINE: And then the 101st came to this valley so they fired upon the tanks using stuff that would destroy the tanks. They were being fired at so they had to return fire.

WESTERVELT: The TOW missile that crashed into the ancient chapel's wall could be chopped up to the fog of combat. But the same can't be said for the sophomoric graffiti scrawled around the place or the big 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles logo some soldiers painted above the chapel's door.

Private First Class IRVINE: And if you look over the sanctuary, you'll see the 101st Airborne patch. We have since tried painting over it, washing it off - it won't come off.

WESTERVELT: U.S. soldiers four years ago also whitewashed the stone altar and the two-story high walls of the chapel covering remnants of 600-year-old murals. An ornate shell-shaped stone alcove with a cross still adorns one wall. Looters sometime, apparently, got the second one. An identically shaped alcove on the other side of the door sits empty with chisel marks around it. Yet other unique features remain intact. In the roofline, right above the altar, you can still see a neatly cut man-made opening to the sky.

Private First Class IRVINE: Around Eastern Time at about noon-ish(ph) that light actually shines (unintelligible) a direct beam onto this altar.

WESTERVELT: A 101st Airborne soldiers were hardly the first to leave their mark here. Previously, Iraqi tank units trashed the monastery damaging rooms and filling an ancient cistern with junk and feces. Near the monastery's entranceway, there's much older graffiti. A crusader-era Jerusalem cross is carefully etched into the stone perhaps a vestige of some medieval battle in the region.

Today, the monastery sits on the edge of U.S. Forward Operating Base Marez. Despite the ravages of war and neglect, St. Elijah's remains an enchanting place. The reddish-brown sand walls seem to soak up the sharp late afternoon sun. Underground tunnels now grass-covered and partially collapsed poke through the earth near an egg-shaped cistern.

Irvine, a 21-year-old from South Dakota, is trying to help preserve the site and give soldiers occasional guided tours.

Private First Class IRVINE: I love it - coming here. Just the atmosphere that it has versus being at work or running around outside the wire where it's stressful, very relaxing.

WESTERVELT: Some of the damage U.S. forces did here can't be undone. U.S. military chaplains are now trying to protect the site as best they can. But with a war still on, the simple chain link fence chaplains have erected around the monastery maybe its only protection for years to come.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Mosul.

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