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At House Hearing, AAAS Visiting Scholar Describes Targeted Damage to Minority Religious and Cultural Sites by ISIS


From left: Sister Diana Momeka, Jacqueline Isaac, Hind Kabawat, and Katharyn Hanson at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee| AAAS/Earl Lane

In August 2014, Katharyn Hanson was in Erbil, Iraq, working as a program director for the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage. The post-doctoral fellow from the University of Pennsylvania Museum's Cultural Heritage Center was leading a course for heritage professionals from throughout Iraq on how to preserve important cultural and archaeological sites.

Hanson's life changed abruptly with the news that Islamic State forces were advancing toward the ancient plain outside the Kurdish city. She and the other professionals — men and women of many religious creeds who were working together to save Iraq cultural sites — scrambled to leave Erbil shortly after airstrikes to prevent the terror group's advance had begun.

Now, Hanson, who also has an appointment as a visiting scholar with the AAAS Geospatial Technologies Project, monitors the perilous state of Iraqi antiquities largely via analysis of satellite images and media reports from the region. Two months ago, she did visit Dohuk, an area adjacent to the Nineveh region that is held by Islamic State, and met with the director of the Dohuk Antiquities Department. She also plans to return to Erbil in the near future with colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. They will work with Iraqi heritage professionals to determine what emergency needs still exist.


Rep. Ed Royce | AAAS/Earl Lane

Based on her recent experiences in Iraq, her consultations with Iraqi colleagues, and her work for AAAS, Hanson told a 13 May hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the targeted and intentional damage to minority religious and cultural sites by the Islamic State, also called ISIS. She testified with others who described the terror group's persecution of religious minorities.

"Minority religious heritage sites throughout ISIS-held areas of Iraq and Syria have been suffering enormous damage and face constant risk," Hanson told the House panel, which is chaired by Rep. Ed Royce (R.-Calif.). "The targeted extermination of religious minorities by ISIS results in mass death and also the erasure of the outward manifestations of the minority religious culture, threatening the continuity of their religious practices."

Among the examples Hanson cited:

  • ISIS destroyed the Mosul shrine of Nebi Yunis, revered as the tomb of the Prohet Jonah, in July 2014, according to media reports. Subsequent analysis of satellite imagery by the AAAS Geospatial Technologies Project confirmed the reports and also showed that ISIS brought in heavy trucks to remove the rubble and graded the site to remove all evidence of the shrine. Such actions also likely damaged the buried remains of the site's earlier mosques, churches, and temples, Hanson told the committee.
  • A number of Yazidi shrines have been destroyed since ISIS took control of Mosul and Sinjar, and Hanson said the Dohuk Antiquities Department now regards Lalish — one of the only surviving Yazidi religious centers in the region — as particularly at risk. The shrine and tomb is considered the Yazidi spiritual heartland. "That is their Mecca, that is their Rome," said Jacqueline Isaac, vice president of the nonprofit Roads of Success, who also testified at the hearing. Her group works to advance human rights in the Middle East.
  • Dura-Europos, a site with sacred architecture from the 3rd century B.C. onwards, has been extensively looted and is currently under ISIS control. Structures at the site include temples to ancient Greek and Mesopotamian gods as well as the world’s best-preserved ancient Jewish synagogue and one of the earliest known Christian house chapels. According to Hanson, the chapel contains the oldest known depiction of Jesus Christ and dates to about 235 A.D. Before-and-after image analysis by the Geospatial Technologies Project found 76% of the site’s surface area within the ancient city walls has now been looted.
  • ISIS recently released two videos showing the defacement of a particular type of ancient sculpture called a lamassu. Such sculptures are human-headed winged bulls or lions made during the Neo-Assyrian Empire between the 9th and 7th century B.C., Hanson said, and they often serve as important symbols to the modern Assyrian Christian population. "ISIS's defacement of a lamassu is therefore intended to terrorize the present-day Christian community while simultaneously destroying an ancient artifact," Hanson said.

Rep. Royce said there are numerous ethnic and religious minorities under ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria, including Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac Christians as well as Kaka'i, Shabak, Turkmen, Yazidis, and others. "The mass execution of men, the enslavement of women and children, the destruction of religious sites is part of the ISIS effort to destroy these communities, to destroy all evidence of the pre-existence of these communities," Royce said.

He noted that ISIS maintains a special demolition battalion that is charged with going after art, artifacts, and religious and historical sites that the group considers heretical or idolatrous.

Asked about the impact on people when their religious sites are attacked, Sister Diana Momeka, a Dominican nun who was displaced from her convent when ISIS overran the area around Mosul, told the committee that such destruction is "a sign for us that your history is gone, you are nothing."

Momeka urged the committee not to forget the plight of Christians and other communities under threat by ISIS. "I am but one small person, a victim myself of ISIS and all of its brutality" she said. "I am here to implore you, for the sake of our common humanity, to help us. She added, "We want nothing more than to go back to our lives, we want nothing more than to go home."

In her testimony, speaking on behalf of the Penn Museum, Hanson recommended that the United States offer humanitarian aid to religious and refugee communities as well as the displaced museum curators, librarians, archivists, and archaeologists "who are working at great personal risk to protect religious and cultural heritage inside Iraq and Syria."

She also urged the Foreign Affairs Committee to investigate whether proper protections for religious and cultural heritage have been integrated into training for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the Iraqi Army, and the Free Syrian Army. She noted that a Pentagon report is due in June on efforts to avoid accidental air strikes on religious and cultural sites.

Hanson also applauded a bipartisan bill, already approved unanimously by the committee and awaiting House floor action, to streamline federal efforts to address international heritage protection and restrict import of materials looted from religious and archaeological sites.

The AAAS geospatial technologies team conducted its damage analyses with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences.


Earl Lane