Ever since the extremist Islamic State group took control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, they have been closing down Christian churches. At one stage Mosul was home to the biggest population of Iraqi Christians in the country – Christians have lived here for almost 2,000 years – outside of the nearby region of Iraqi Kurdistan, and there are an estimated 45 churches around the metropolis.
The Islamic State, or IS, group has demolished the city’s churches or turned them into courts or prisons. This is after they removed any sign that the church was a religious building.
The Latin Church – also known as the Dominican Father’s church because of a monastery there – was opened in the Sa’a neighbourhood on August 4, 1873. The church’s distinctive clock tower was given to the church by Eugénie, empress of France and consort of Napoleon III, who donated the clock tower in appreciation of efforts made by the Dominican Fathers at the church during a typhoid epidemic that started in 1879. The clock tower was completed in 1882.
For 133 years, the clock tower was a distinctive mark of the neighbourhood, so much so that the area around it took on the name of the church; the house of worship was also known as As Sa`a by locals.
Researcher Matti Behnam describes the clock tower as having four sides and says that for more than a century, it had to be wound up by hand. It was only in the 1980s that the clock tower received an electric mechanism. And the sound of its ticking could allegedly be heard more than 15 kilometres away; many locals set their watches by it. The church also has two large domed cupolas and a hall that could accommodate 100 people.
At the time it was built, residents in the area actually protested against the clock because the tower would be higher than the roofs of their homes, where they slept with their families in summer, says Thanoon al-Taie, a history professor and the head of the Centre for Studies of Mosul, formerly based at the University of Mosul. But the Dominican Fathers said that nobody was going to climb the clock tower and look down at them and that the timepiece was only there so people knew at what times they should pray.
The church has had a long and chequered history in Mosul since then. During the 1990s it was endangered by ground water under the cracking pavements of the ancient city. After 2003, when ongoing violence in Iraq and attacks by extremist groups led many Iraqi Christians to migrate, the church was almost forced to close its doors. On April 9, 2008 an explosion near the church destroyed part of the clock tower. Then in February 2015, the extremist Islamic State group, who are opposed to anyone that does not subscribe to their arcane version of Islam, destroyed what was left of the tower and removed the Christian cross atop it.
And so another symbol of the historic city of Mosul was gone. The extremists had been on a spree of destruction and this was the latest in a series of bulldozings, explosions and thefts of antiquities that had included ancient monuments in Hatra and Nimrod as well as the popular shrine of Nabi Yunus.
The Iraqi Christians who left Mosul are saddened by this. They blame their Muslim neighbours for silencing the ticking of the clock, by which all the citizens of Mosul used to set their watches and under whose shadow, they all lived in peace.