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IRBIL, Iraq — Satellite photos obtained by the Associated Press confirm what church leaders and Middle East preservationists had feared: The oldest Christian monastery in Iraq has been reduced to rubble, yet another victim of ISIS's relentless destruction of heritage sites.
St. Elijah's Monastery stood as a place of worship for 1,400 years, including most recently for U.S. troops. In earlier millennia, generations of monks tucked candles in the niches, prayed in the chapel, worshipped at the altar. The Greek letters chi and rho, representing the first two letters of Christ's name, were carved near the entrance.
This month, at the request of the AP, satellite imagery firm DigitalGlobe tasked a high resolution camera to grab photos of the site, and then pulled earlier images of the same spot.
Before it was razed, a partially restored, 27,000-square-foot stone and mortar building stood fortress-like on a hill above Mosul. Although the roof was largely missing, it had 26 distinctive rooms including a sanctuary and chapel. One month later photos show "that the stone walls have been literally pulverized," said imagery analyst Stephen Wood, CEO of Allsource Analysis, who pinpointed the destruction between August and September 2014.
"Bulldozers, heavy equipment, sledgehammers, possibly explosives turned those stone walls into this field of gray-white dust. They destroyed it completely," he said from his Colorado offices.
On the other side of the world, in his office in exile, in Irbil, Iraq, Catholic priest Rev. Paul Thabit Habib, 39, stared in disbelief at the before- and after- images.
"Our Christian history in Mosul is being barbarically leveled," he said in Arabic. "We see it as an attempt to expel us from Iraq, eliminating and finishing our existence in this land."
ISIS, which now controls large parts of Iraq and Syria, has killed thousands of civilians in the past two years. Along the way, its fighters have destroyed whatever they consider contrary to their interpretation of Islam.
St. Elijah's — built in 590 — joins a growing list of more than 100 religious and historic sites looted and destroyed, including mosques, tombs, shrines and churches.