On the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah

Posted: July 30, 2014 in ISIS

Why Did ISIS Destroy the Tomb of Jonah?
Mark Movsesian
First Things | 7 . 28 . 14

On Friday, the media reported that ISIS, the Islamist group that has established a “caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq, had destroyed the centuries-old Tomb of Jonah in Mosul, Iraq. Present-day Mosul encompasses the site of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, where, the Bible teaches, the Prophet Jonah preached. Although this is disputed, a tradition holds that Jonah was buried within the city, on Tell Nebi Yunus, or Hill of the Prophet Jonah.

An Assyrian church stood over the tomb for centuries. After the Muslim conquest, the church became a mosque; the structure that ISIS destroyed last week dated to the 14th century. In addition to the tomb, the mosque once held the supposed remains of the whale that had swallowed Jonah, including one of its teeth. At some point, the tooth disappeared. In 2008, the U.S. Army presented the mosque with a replica.

Last week, ISIS closed the mosque and prevented worshipers from entering. Then it wired the structure with explosives and reduced it to rubble. You can see a video of the explosion here, taken by a Mosul resident, who mutters, in Arabic, “No, no, no. Prophet Jonah is gone. God, these scoundrels.”

Some commentators have explained the destruction of the tomb as part of ISIS’s anti-Christian campaign. Scholars Joel Baden and Candida Moss point out that, in Christian interpretation, the Old Testament story of Jonah prefigures the death and resurrection of Christ. “The destruction of his tomb in Mosul is therefore a direct assault on Christian faith, and on one of the few physical traces of that faith remaining in Iraq.” Another scholar, Sam Hardy, told the Washington Post that the destruction of the tomb shows that ISIS is willing to destroy “pretty much anything in the Bible.”

On this analysis, ISIS destroyed the tomb because of its Christian associations. But that mistakes ISIS’s motives in this case. True, ISIS has no respect for Christians or their sites of worship and, in fact, has driven Mosul’s Christians from the city. The fact that the tomb was sacred for Christians as well as Muslims—and contained a present from the US Army—cannot have endeared it to ISIS. But something else is going on here. The shrine was, after all, a mosque, and Jonah figures in the Quran as well as the Bible. To understand why ISIS destroyed the tomb, one has to appreciate something about the version of Islam the group espouses.

ISIS is part of the Salafi movement, a branch of Sunni Islam that seeks to return to the practices of the earliest Muslims – the salaf— who lived at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and just after. The movement rejects the centuries of subsequent developments in Islam as unjustified innovations–pagan accretions that adulterated the faith. In particular, the movement opposes the veneration of the graves of Islamic prophets and holy men. Salafis see this practice, which is associated most frequently with Sufi Islam, as a kind of idolatry, or shirk, that detracts from the absolute transcendence of God.

Salafi Islam prevails in Saudi Arabia, where it enjoys the patronage of the royal family. On the Arabian Peninsula, as now in Iraq, Salafis have destroyed the tombs of Islamic holy men. Indeed, when the Saudi royal family captured the city of Medina in the 19th century, Salafis systematically destroyed the tombs of several of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions and family members, leaving only the Prophet’s tomb itself unmolested. There is some thought that the Saudi government plans on dismantling even that tomb, but hesitates to do so because of the uproar that would result in other Muslim communities.

In short, one should see ISIS’s destruction of the tomb of Jonah as an act principally directed at other Muslims, not Christians. That doesn’t make it any better, of course. Will the outside world do anything in response? Unlikely. Besides, as Professor Hardy told the Post, “If we didn’t intervene when they were killing people, it would be kind of grotesque to intervene over a building.”

http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/07/why-did-isis-destroy-the-tomb-of-jonah

 

Iraqi Christians’ nightmare
Thanks to ISIS persecution, Mosul is without Christians for the first time in 2,000 years
Kirsten Powers
USA Today | July 29, 2014

Iraq’s Christians are begging the world for help. Is anybody listening?

Since capturing the country’s second largest city of Mosul in early June, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has ordered Christians to convert to Islam, pay jizya taxes levied on non-Muslims, or die. The extremist Sunni group is also persecuting and murdering Turkmen and Shabaks, both Muslim religious minorities.

Human rights lawyer Nina Shea described the horror in Mosul to me: "(ISIS) took the Christians’ houses, took the cars they were driving to leave. They took all their money. One old woman had her life savings of $40,000, and she said, ‘Can I please have 100 dollars?’, and they said no. They took wedding rings off fingers, chopping off fingers if they couldn’t get the ring off."

"We now have 5,000 destitute, homeless people with no future," Shea said. "This is a crime against humanity."

For the first time in 2,000 years, Mosul is devoid of Christians. "This is ancient Nineveh we are talking about," Shea explained. "They took down all the crosses. They blew up the tomb of the prophet Jonah. An orthodox Cathedral has been turned into a mosque. … They are uprooting every vestige of Christianity." University of Mosul professor Mahmoud Al ‘Asali, a Muslim, bravely spoke out against ISIS’ purging of Christians and was executed.

Lebanon-based Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, who heads the Syrian Catholic Church, called the crisis "religious cleansing" in an interview. "I want to tell American Christians to stand up, wake up and no longer be a silent majority. American-elected representatives need to stand up for their principles on which the U.S. has been founded: the defense of religious freedom … and respect for human rights."

Mosul’s Christians have fled to Kurdistan, which is providing refuge. Going back to Mosul is not an option: ISIS has given their houses and businesses away. There is nothing to go back to even if ISIS left.

Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf has taken to the House floor three times in the past week to plead for action from the U.S. and world community.

Wolf told me, "The Kurds have done a good job, but they are bearing the burden. President Obama should thank and encourage the Kurds for protecting the Christians. He also needs to provide (humanitarian aid), including funds for water and food."

Though many Iraq War boosters have claimed that keeping U.S. troops there would have avoided this atrocity, Shea pointed out that a million Christians left Iraq in the decade before ISIS’ purge campaign. The U.S. invasion "did not benefit the Christians at all. Back in 2007, jihadists moved into Baghdad’s Christian Dora neighborhood and did just what they are doing in Mosul now. We had 100,000 troops on the ground and we pushed them out, but the Christians never got back their property."

Patriarch Younan concurred, telling me, "Christians used to live (peacefully) and get educated. But since the invasion in 2003, there is…no safety."

Kirsten Powers writes weekly for USA TODAY.

http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/07/29/kirsten-powers-iraqi-christians-nightmare/13329557/

 

Does Jonah’s tomb signal the death of Christianity in Iraq?
Opinion by Joel S. Baden and Candida Moss, Special to CNN
July 25th, 2014

(CNN) The destructive force of  the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the militant Sunni movement, is epitomized in a video released Thursday of ISIS members smashing a tomb in Mosul, Iraq.

The tomb is traditionally thought to be the burial place of the prophet Jonah, a holy site for Christians and many Muslims.

Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, is built on and adjacent to the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, the setting for the biblical book of Jonah and once the most powerful capital of the ancient world.

Indeed, for most people familiar with the Bible, Nineveh is inseparable from the figure of Jonah.

In Christian tradition, the story of Jonah is an important one. Jonah’s descent into the depths in the belly of the great fish and subsequent triumphant prophetic mission to Nineveh is seen as a reference to and prototype of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The destruction of his tomb in Mosul is therefore a direct assault on Christian faith, and on one of the few physical traces of that faith remaining in Iraq.

Despite its acknowledged antiquity, however, it is a virtual certainty that the tomb destroyed by ISIS was not that of the biblical prophet.

His purported tomb was in a mosque dating back to the time of the Muslim conquest in the middle of the first millennium. The mosque, known as the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus (Arabic for Jonah), was built on an even earlier Christian church that stood on the spot.

It’s likely that the association of the site with Jonah’s burial goes back to the early Christian period when the practice of linking geographical features with biblical figures was all the rage. (See: Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, David’s Tomb in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, etc.)

Jewish tradition suggests that Jonah returned to his hometown of Gath-Hepher after his mission to Nineveh (as we read in the book 3 Maccabees, from around the first century B.C.).

This was certainly the belief held by the church father Jerome, and was local tradition in Gath-Hepher in the 12th century and remains so today.

(Perhaps less likely is the rabbinic claim that his experience in the belly of the great fish was so terrible that God granted Jonah a rare exemption from the travails of death and he went up to heaven alive.)

In the end, speculations about the actual location of Jonah’s burial are probably moot, as virtually all scholars agree that the book is a work of pure fiction is perhaps even a comedic novella of sorts and that it is quite likely to have been written around the fifth century B.C., around 200 years after the city of Nineveh was destroyed.

But it is not the historical reality that is at stake in Mosul today.

The destruction of Jonah’s tomb was not an attack on archaeology. It was an attack on both those Christians living in Iraq today and on the rich, if little-known, Christian heritage of the region.

When people think of ancient Christianity, they don’t ordinarily think of Iraq. But the Christian communities there are among the oldest in the world.

According to church tradition, Christianity was introduced to the region by the Apostles Thomas and Thaddeus. These stories may be legendary, but by the second century we have references to Christian converts with names associated with the region and later histories refer to the persecution of Christians in Iraq in the fourth century. The Mar Behnam Monastery, for example, is believed to go back to the fourth century.

In the past two millennia, Iraq has been a center for Christian theological enquiry, learning and devotion. Important monasteries were built there in the sixth and seventh centuries, and various forms of ancient Christianity that had died out elsewhere persisted in Iraq into the 21st century.

Mar Mattai, which is to the southeast of Mosul and is maintained by the Syriac Orthodox Church, became one of the most important Christian monasteries by the eighth century, and was particularly renowned for its library.

The significance of Christianity in Iraq extends beyond even religion.

It is likely that Syriac monks were partly responsible for the preservation of Greek philosophical, medical and scientific texts by translating them into Syriac and Arabic. A ninth-century Syriac patriarch named Timothy wrote that the best Syriac manuscripts of Greek writers were to be found at Mar Mattai.

All that has been erased in a matter of days.

Last week, ISIS reportedly issued an ultimatum to Christians that they must convert to Islam, flee or face the sword. Earlier this month ISIS had allowed Christians to pay a non-Muslim tax known as jizya. On July 17, Christians were notified that jizya was no longer an option. They must now convert, flee or die.

Among the last Christians to leave the city were monks residents of the ancient Mar Behnam Monastery who left behind them 1,400 years of rich Christian tradition, as ISIS refused to let the monks take any of their precious relics with them.

Despite its antiquity and rich tradition, Christianity in Iraq is on the brink of eradication.

The heirs to those who first discovered the tomb of Jonah, and those who helped to keep Greek philosophy alive in the medieval period, are being ejected from their homes and from a land they have held sacred for centuries. This is the face and reality of Christian persecution.

Jonah was one of the earliest symbols of the resurrection for Christians. Will Christianity ever rise again in Iraq?

Joel S. Baden is professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. Candida Moss is a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed in this column belong to Baden and Moss.

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/07/25/jonahs-tomb-and-the-collapse-of-christianity-in-iraq/comment-page-3/

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