Last June, I accompanied a Belgian priest who had been living in Iraq for more than forty years on a trip to visit a historic church in southern Baghdad called “Kokheh.” This trip inspired me to see that Iraq’s rich history and religious diversity could be used to create new economic opportunities and end our country’s reputation for division.
The church’s name is from the word Kokhe, meaning a hut in Arabic. It got that name because it was once surrounded by workers’ huts. The church’s pastor took the local name “Mansour al-Makhlissi” and founded a center for Oriental studies at the Roman Catholic Church in Baghdad. He was surprised that anyone would want to see a place nobody has dared to visit in the last 15 years.
Although many archaeological sites have been looted or destroyed by the Islamic State in Nineveh province, this remote region has stayed far from military operations. But the place—like other archaeological sites in Iraq—is suffering from official neglect, despite its very beautiful location on the banks of the legendary Tigris River.
The cars on our journey drove parallel to the first-century “Seleucia-on-Tigris” wall flanked by military barracks, which housed troops for guard posts who try to keep violence down in this area. As the cars arrived at a large hill with mud terraces, Father Mansour recited prayers to the souls of the first Christian martyrs whose graves lay on this hill, called “Tell Omar.” I spoke to soldiers stationed at the top of the hill. They were surprised to know that the site had exceptional religious significance, believing the graves were just an artificial mound built by villagers to keep out flood waters.
The journey ended with a visit to the site of the Kokhe Church at the Kasr Bint al-Qadi mound, which was discovered by some German archaeologists in 1929. Evidence of their excavation is still visible, and at a deeper level lay the remains of another smaller church built in the same architectural style.
During the journey, Father Mansour spoke of other important cities in the area, built on the banks of the Tigris River before it changed its course more than once, shifting to one side or the other. Among these cities is the round town (Beh-Ardashir) preceded by Seleucia (300 BC), a city that once spread Greek culture in Mesopotamia and was built on the west bank of the Tigris and separated from Ctesiphon, once a capital of the Persian empire. The latter was founded under the name of “New Seleucia” in 39-47 BC., on the east side of the Tigris River.
After our arrival, residents from al-Jabour tribe invited us to eat Iraqi-style grilled fish known as Masgouf. In fact, that meal was the highlight of our visit to Kokheh. The efforts of the Muslim population in the region to receive their Christian visitors revealed a genuine desire to eliminate the prevailing stereotype of hostility between Iraqi Muslims and Christians.
It was easy to see these people’s desire to restore their normal lives, and their hopes that others would cease to stereotype them as terrorists or collaborators with ISIS.
This experience prompted me to think about the importance of reviving this and other archaeological sites in the country and investing in them as religious and archaeological tourist destinations. This investment would bring tangible economic benefits to the residents of these marginalized and war-isolated areas by creating jobs. It would be a real step toward eliminating the images and memories of violence, conflict and division as well as showing the true picture of Christian-Muslim co-existence in Iraq and rebuilding confidence among the population in a post-conflict period. I think such investment would be a factor of unity and strength and bring an end to the policies of division. It will also encourage people to preserve this rich heritage as an important resource for their livelihood.
Of course, investment in the revival of religious sites such as Kokheh Church is also an opportunity to rebuild an economy based on religious and cultural diversity as one alternative to the oil-based economy.
An investment in Iraq’s religious diversity would not only take advantage of the rich history of Islam and Christianity in the country, but also the Jewish heritage. Iraq was the spiritual center of the Jews for nearly a thousand years as well as the home of many of the tombs of Old Testament prophets in different parts of the country, like that of Prophet Ezekiel in Babylon, the tomb of Ezra the Scribe (Ha Sopher) in Maysan governorate, the tomb of Daniel in Kirkuk and many other shrines, which form a great opportunity to rebuild the links between new generations of Jews and Muslims and to be liberated from decades of hatred and fears of conflict.
The existence of many spiritual authorities is one of the most important sources of the country’s soft power. There is almost a dizzying variety of religious beliefs in Iraq: In addition to the existence of the ayatollahs, including the supreme authority of the Shiites of the world in Najaf (the Shiite Vatican) and other senior Shia authorities in Karbala, other spiritual leaders in Iraq include the world religious authority of the Sabean Mandaean community in Baghdad; the world religious authority for Yazidis in al-Shikhan in the northern province of Nineveh; the world head of the Chaldean Catholics, and the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, whose former patriarch lived in exile in the United States. There are also the authorities for Islamic sects such as the Shaykhism in Basra, to the south of the country. Other religious minorities, unmatched in the Arab world, include the Kakais in the north of the country, who represent an extension of the Ahle Haqq in Iran and the Shabak, an ethnic minority settled in the Nineveh Plain region, which has a distinctive epiphanic tradition of Sufism.
Here, I should emphasize two key changes needed to achieve this social investment. First, the state must enact legislation that protects religious diversity and expands on this policy in the constitution and all executive decisions. Second, it is necessary to design school and university curricula that teach students about the religious diversity their country enjoys. Teachers should contribute through the curricula to spreading awareness and the culture of accepting others and encourage students to reject fanaticism and hate speech. The government and universities should support scientific research that documents this heritage and suggests possible means of preserving it. This heritage should be viewed as an unlimited source of wealth and a powerful way to protect Iraq’s future and the unity of its people.
Saad Salloum is an Iraqi academic and journalist specializing in Iraqi minorities and human rights. He heads the research department in the College of Political Sciences of Mustansiriya University and is one of the founding members of the Iraqi Council for Interfaith Dialogue. His publications focus on Iraqi minorities and include the books “Minorities in Iraq” (2013), “Christians in Iraq” (2014) and “Policies and Ethnic Groups in Iraq” (2014).