IRAQ: Excavations halted at Qusair Church in Kerbala, Antiquities Minister threatens and sounds alarm bell

BAGHDAD / KERBALA, Iraq – In a statement made to the media by the visiting Iraqi Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Hassan Nazim said that excavations underway at the historical site of Qusair fort some 150 kilometers south of the Iraqi capital Baghdad in the Kerbala Governate, have been halted because of trespass violations and illegal excavations.

The Minister said that misguided treasure hunters and trespassers damaged the archeological site in search of antiquities, and that measures need to be taken to stop further damage to the Qusair fort. Excavations were also underway in the Nestorian Syriac church (est. fifth century) near the Qusair fort in the desert of Kerbala. Chaldean Syriacs have used the church for prayers on special events.

Many excavation sites in Iraq have been temporarily halted. Years of war, terrorism, the backward Islamic ideology of ISIS, combined with a cash-strapped corrupt, negligent, and sectarian Iraqi government, have affected the maintenance of the sites, caused international teams of archaeologists to (temporarily) withdraw or be reluctant to enter Iraq, and kept millions of tourists away (although religious (Shia) tourism continued).

In his statement, the Minister pointed to the need to openly denounce the parties and persons involved in the trespassing and damaging the Qusair landmark, and that he will submit an urgency report to Prime Minister Mustapha Kadhimi.

Chaldean Syriacs praying in Church near Qusair. Image: HCEF

Minister Nazim has previously stated that Iraq is struggling with the complex file of stolen antiquities. Groups from inside Iraq and regional and international actors have used the difficult situation Iraq is going through since 2003, to loot and steal thousands of antiquities, art works, and religious artifacts.

Necessary funding and the international factor make the recovery of Iraqi antiquities complex and time consuming. According to Hassan Nazim, his ministry and responsible Iraqi embassies, have been able to recover thousands of stolen pieces in e.g. the United States.

Beth Nahrin (Mesopotamia) is considered the cradle of civilization with thousands of ancient Akkadian, Aramean, Assyrian, Babylonian archeological sites, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and more recent Christian and Muslim high architectural achievements.

In Iraq, especially Yazidi and Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian places of worship, churches, monasteries, and manuscripts, some of them hundreds year old, suffered heavily under ISIS. Although reconstruction is underway, progress is slow. Only 200 Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian families have e.g. been able to return home to Mosul and pray in their destroyed ancient old churches.

Thousands of old Syriac artifacts and manuscripts also remain lost. It was for this reason that the European Union nominated Syriac Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul Najeeb Michaeel Moussa for the 2020 Sakharov Price. He was nominated this year because he “ensured the evacuation of Christians, Syriacs and Chaldeans to Iraqi Kurdistan and safeguarded more than 800 historic manuscripts dating from the 13th to the 19th century.”