Church restoration project aims to reclaim, repair northern Iraq worship places

June 2023

A new project in northern Iraq seeks to protect hundreds of historical Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac worship spaces and reclaim their lands from growing encroachment by local squatters. 

The project, titled On the Path of Apostles, launched in May by the Nineveh Center for Minority Rights (NCMR). 

To protect the sites, organizers plan to build one-kilometer fences around church grounds, construct signs that label each church and chronicle its history, and install security cameras to monitor for trespassers.

“Not only would we protect our old churches, we would be protecting our land,” said Mikhael Benjamin of Dohuk, an NCMR representative. “We are protecting around 300 kilometers of our land.”

The project began in March when Benjamin visited a sixth century church in Aqra, Iraq and said he was saddened by the site’s deteriorating condition.

So he recorded an offhand video describing the scene: Crumbling stones from the exterior of the building, scattered along the church grounds, and no protection of the land from looters and squatters. 

On a visit to a church in Aqra, Iraq on March 18, Mikhael Benjamin describes the deteriorating condition of the worship space. (Video: Mikhael Benjamin via Facebook)

Mikhael steadily received support across church leaders. In May, he outlined the idea to Archbishop Mikhaeel Najeeb of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Later that same month, he joined a delegation to present the concept to Mar Awa III, the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East. 

“There are around 250 to 300 monasteries like this one throughout northern Iraq,” Benjamin said in the video. “They are all like this one, abandoned and neglected. Anyone can come in to destroy and damage them, however they wish.”

Benjamin returned to visit an abandoned church on April 24. (Video: Mikhael Benjamin via Facebook)

Efforts to refurbish and protect these sites are not new. But church leaders said they’ve had difficulty removing families that are living on these sites. Some ask for money. Other refuse to leave, despite being show police orders to do so. The orders are rarely enforced, NCMR told the Journal.

The organization is in the process of surveying churches and raising money to fund the project. The team has so far assessed seven Assyrian villages.

“This is saving a piece of our land,” Benjamin said. “This [project] is a good way to say, ‘This is our land, we’ve been here and we still are here.'”

A man surveys a church ground in Aqra, Iraq. (Photo: Mikhael Benjamin)

Related posts

ACOE announces election date for new patriarch


New ACOE church opens in time for Christmas


Election of new ACOE patriarch postponed due to COVID


Leave a Reply