Work began this week to clear rubble and landmines planted by ISIS around Mosul’s iconic Al Saa’a Monastery ahead of the first International Day of Human Fraternity on Thursday.
It is marked by the UAE’s Minister of Culture and Youth Noura Al Kaabi who said investment and rebuilding was part of the “Revive the spirit of Mosul” project.
The Emirates is funding the project launched by the UN’s cultural agency, Unesco to rebuild Mosul’s historic landmarks.
"The message we want to convey through our partnership in the project is that we will resist the zealots who destroy the symbols of our harmonious heritage and cultural values," Ms Al Kaabi wrote in an opinion piece for The National.
The project aims to restore the 12th century Al Nuri Mosque and its famous leaning minaret as well as Al Saa’a Monastery and the 800-year-old Al Tahera church, alongside other structures to be rebuilt in its Year of Tolerance programme.
Al Saa’a Monastery, known as the Conventual Church of Our Lady of the Hour, situated in the Old City of Mosul was damaged by ISIS during the Battle of Mosul in December 2017.
The battle to drive out ISIS left about 8 million tonnes of rubble in Mosul. The scale of devastation has set the city back decades.
Heritage sites such as churches and mosques, as well as ancient and medieval sites, are among the casualties of the conflict, which raged for a year from 2016 after ISIS took over the city in 2014.
Al Saa’a was built towards the end of the 19th century by Catholic priests of the Dominican order and holds significance for the city’s architectural history and heritage.
"We just started the new phase in [reconstructing] Al Saa'a with the rubble removal and de-mining, it's a very active phase of work, which is providing people with jobs and injecting financial resources – it's an investment in the future of Mosul," Dominican Father Olivier Poquillon told The National.
Al Saa’a is regarded as a sign of coexistence in the war-torn country.
The project is giving hope to Maslawis impatient to see some concrete results on the ground after living among the ruins of war for years.
“It is providing employment and changing their daily life,” Father Olivier said.
The UAE stepped in to fund the construction of momentous buildings in the city, working with the UN’s cultural agency and the Iraqi government to restore Al Nuri Mosque and its leaning minaret in 2018.
A year later the UAE added Al Saa’a Monastery and All Tahera church to the programme.
The UAE pledged more than $50 million into Unesco’s “Reviving the Spirit of Mosul” project.
It is also offering training for young professionals, strengthening the capacities of local talent and creating job opportunities.
“By adding Al Tahira and Al Saa’a to the project the Emirates are trying to promote the model of society, of living together. This came after Pope Francis’s visit to the UAE, as a desire to promote this capacity to live together as a means to strengthen common peace and prosperity,” Father Olivier said.
Stabilising and rehabilitation work will include clearing the site and holding a survey to help prepare a detailed design for the monastery’s restoration, including its bell tower.
In 2006 Al Saa’a was bombed during the sectarian war and was used as a jail and torture court by ISIS when they seized Mosul in 2014.
It has retained its tower but its interior has been damaged.
“Recently we re-opened some rooms that were locked since ISIS was defeated. Part of the monastery has been less damaged than Al Nouri Mosque and Al Tahera cathedral,” Father Olivier said.
“It was a strong building; we restored it in the 1990s, that’s why they [ISIS] used it for their own purpose, each time I enter I make a prayer for those who suffered,” he said.
“We want to turn it back to a place of worship and peace dedicated to God.”
Father Olivier said Iraqi youth are attempting to re-gain power over their lives and build a better future.
"When it comes to choosing between violence and peace, the youth will choose to build peace and choose involvement," he said.
"They see no reason to live in difficult situations; they see so many examples of other youth in the Middle East being able to participate and develop their lives," he said.
The clearing of the area coincides with the two-year anniversary since Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb launched the Human Fraternity Document calling on people across the globe to unite to bring about interfaith harmony and spread a vital message of peace.
The blueprint to "guide future generations" to advance a "culture of mutual respect" spanning all nationalities, backgrounds and beliefs was unveiled after the two figures in the Catholic and Muslim faiths, met at the Global Conference of Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi.
Both the Pope and the Grand Imam have said their mission statement for a more unified world, free from the scourge of terrorism, with equal rights for women and appreciation for all religions and places of worship, should be the "object of research and reflection in all schools, universities and institutes of formation, to helping to educate new generations to bring goodness and peace to others".