The Syriac Catholic Church in Shorja, a large marketplace in Baghdad, is being demolished and will be replaced with a commercial development, according to local academics and activists in Iraq’s capital city.
The move, speculatively approved by the Baghdad Mayorality and the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), comes amid a years-long violent marginalisation of the capital – and the country’s – Christian population, which began decreasing in the mid-2000s.
In 2017 alone, eight churches in Baghdad were forced to close their doors due to low attendance, as reported by the Christianity Daily.
“This church was the first Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad,” said Dr Ghada Al-Silq, professor at the University of Baghdad’s Department of Architecture, to Middle East Architect. “It was built in 1841, and was known as the Church of the Virgin Mary Immaculate.”
“The Christian community in Iraq has decreased noticeably since 2003, and among those leaving are the Syriac Catholics who left Iraq in a large wave in 2010 after [the attack on] the Church of our Lady of Salvation in Karada,” she added.
Once listed as a heritage site, the abandoned Syriac Catholic Church in Shorja has slowly deteriorated over time, with its dome recently collapsing in the summer of 2018. Its arches and columns, though, have remained in good condition.
The construction plans, obtained by Al-Silq, highlight the new commercial development's layout, which consists of two floors and a basement. According to Al-Silq, the lower level could be used as a church in the future, “when needed”.
“The Christians are being pushed out of Iraq, and now so are their traces.” - Dr Ghada Al-Silq
“There are three other churches that were also listed as heritage sites: one is in Midan and it caters to the Armenian Orthodox, the Latin church in Shorja which is near the Syriac Catholic Church, and the Chaldean Umm Al Ahzan, or ‘The Mother of Sorrows’,” said Al-Silq.
“Demolishing this church and building a basement would definitely cause damage to both of the churches nearby,” she added. “The Christians are being pushed out of Iraq, and now so are their traces.”
The plans further reveal the project’s traditional elevation, which is intended to suit its urban context. Despite featuring Christian symbols on its front façade, the interior scheme shows more than 15 spaces intended for shops.
Al-Silq, along with other activists and academics including Dr Caecilia Pieri, researcher at the French Institute of the Near East (Ifpo) and Dr Geraldine Chatelard, associate researcher also at Ifpo, are looking to start an online petition to save the church and advocate for its reconstruction following its original design.
“We are very concerned about this development,” added Chatelard. “There are very few churches in Baghdad, and what is planned for this one will likely affect others in the neighbourhood.”
According to Al Arabiya, along with the Syriac Catholic Church, the Church of Divine Wisdom in Adhamiya, which was founded in 1932, and the monastery of Catholic monks in the Dora area were also up for sale to be converted into residential or commercial properties.