The first-century Church of Kokheh receives its first visitors in 20 years. (Screenshot from a YouTube video posted by Dankha Joola)
The first-century Church of Kokheh has received its first visitors in 20 years. (Screenshot from a YouTube video posted by Dankha Joola)

An historical Christian site in Iraq is receiving visitors again for the first time in 20 years, having previously been shut off due to security concerns, Al-Monitor reports.

The remnants of the first-century Church of Kokheh, located 20 miles (32 kilometres) south of the capital Baghdad, were discovered and excavated by the German Oriental Society in 1929. The church was the patriarchal residence of the Eastern Church for centuries.

A group of Christians from Baghdad were the first to visit the newly reopened site, on 25 May, and were guided by Fr. Mansour al-Makhlissi, founder and head of the Centre for Eastern Studies at the Roman Catholic Church in Baghdad.

The visitors then headed on to another historical site called Sur Sulik, which is still surrounded by army checkpoints. At the end of the tour, the Christians were invited for a meal by a local Muslim religious leader, Sheikh Saad Thabit al-Jabouri, even though they had visited during the Ramadan fast.

During the meal, the local Muslim community and the Christian visitors reportedly discussed the restoration of the Church of Kokheh and agreed to join their efforts in seeking the government’s support for reconstruction of the site.

Fr. Maissar, the minister of St. George’s Chaldean Church, told Al-Monitor that the co-operation “unites Muslims and Christians after having been divided by the atrocities and violence of [IS] over the past few years”.

“Reviving this church is perhaps a new starting point in the process of uniting Muslims and Christians during the holy month of Ramadan,” he added.

Sheikh al-Jubouri said the visit of Christians to the area shows that it is safe again.

“It proves that it is possible to rebuild what terrorism destroyed – whether on the construction level or in the social relationship between the different Iraqi religions,” he told Al-Monitor.

The sheikh said that the work of “a few terrorists” should not be attributed to a whole community or religion and that the cooperation on the reconstruction of the site presented “a new point of departure for all Muslims and Christians to achieve common goals”.

‘Another conflict would end Christian presence’

Meanwhile, the situation for Christians in northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plains is still volatile and is affecting the pace of reconstruction efforts, Stephen Rasche, legal counsel for the Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, told Catholic news agency Crux on Monday (11 June).

Stephen Rasche, legal counsel for the Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil
The situation for Christians in the Nineveh Plains is still volatile and is affecting the pace of reconstruction efforts, Stephen Rasche of the Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil says. (World Watch Monitor)

“If there’s another major conflict, that’s the end for the Christians there,” he said. “They won’t wait around to see this movie one more time.”

Rasche warned that conflict over the future of Kurdish-controlled territories could break out anytime and that the threat of the Islamic State has not been “completely snuffed out”.

According to Rasche, the future depends largely on the US administration, which has expressed its concerns about the persecution of Christians repeatedly, and how it utilises its resources and influence.

The US Vice President, Mike Pence, said on Friday (8 June) that he would “not tolerate bureaucratic delays in implementing the Administration’s vision to deliver the assistance we promised to the people we pledged to help”.

This followed criticism from The Wall Street Journal, which said the US government had failed to follow through on promises made in October last year, when Pence announced that the US would “no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and other minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups”, as UN agencies “often failed to help the most vulnerable communities”. Instead, he said, “the US will work hand in hand from this day forward with faith-based groups and private [organisations] to help those who are persecuted for their faith”.