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New church bells set to ring out over Iraq city once ruled by ISIS



John Burger - published on 12/23/22

Named for Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael, instruments will restore a familiar sound to a place known for Christian-Muslim coexistence.

Church bells were once a common sound in Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, home to a significant Christian population. But for almost a decade, since the Islamic State group took over the area, the bells have been silent.

The local Catholic priest in Mosul, however, has hope that the bells will sound again by next Easter.

“Each week, our Muslim neighbors are asking me when the bells of ‘their church’ will ring again. With the help of God, I hope that UNESCO will be able to install them just before Lent, allowing us to celebrate the Resurrection hearing their voice for Easter 2023,” Fr. Olivier Poquillon, O.P., told Aleteia.

Paris native Fr. Poquillon oversees Our Lady of the Hour, a church and priory founded in the late 19th century by the Order of Preachers. The complex is known in Arabic as Al-Saa’a

Last week, UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural agency, announced that three newly-cast bells will leave Normandy, France, in early March 2023, and be shipped to Mosul to be installed in the church tower there. The bells – named for the Archangels Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael – were cast in the Cornille Havard foundry in Villedieu-les-Poêles. [Photo above shows UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, left, Dominican Father Nicolas Tixier, prior of the Dominican Province of France, center, and Iraqi Ambassador to France Wadee al-Batti at unveiling of bells in Normandy December 5.]

The bells “will soon echo in the streets in Mosul, from the top of the Al-Saa’a Church, partially destroyed by violent extremism and war,” the UN agency announced December 14.

In addition, on Tuesday, a team installed crosses atop the two domes of the church, with the community “praying Jesus, Prince of Peace to extend his blessing and protection on all of the citizens of Mosul,” Fr. Poquillon said in an email. 

“Putting back the cross on the top of our life is a major symbolic step,” he said. 

It’s the latest development in a project announced in October 2019, two years after ISIS’ defeat on the battlefield, “Reviving the Spirit of Mosul by rebuilding its historic landmarks.” UNESCO added the rehabilitation of the church to the project.

Mosul has long been a mission of the Dominicans of France — a base for outreach to Armenia, Kurdistan and Mesopotamia. Al-Saa’a is often referred to as the “Clock Church” due to the timepiece in its tower — a gift to the Dominicans from Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III of France.

Al-Saa’a and the leaning Al-Hadba Minaret and Al-Nouri Mosque next door, which ISIS also destroyed, became “emblematic of the cultural diversity and peaceful co-existence between its communities,” according to a Dominican website

UNESCO, which is also restoring the mosque, said this month that the church bells project is a “testimony of strong mutual assistance between France and Iraq, dating back to  the 19th century. “Today, two centuries later, in an act of continuous solidarity,  France expresses its support once more through the donation and creation of these bells using its unique knowledge and craftsmanship from the Normandy region, where people know too well about the ravage of wars and the power of freedom,” UNESCO said.

The culture agency explained that the Cornille Havard foundry is “heir to a long tradition of bell foundries established in Villedieu-les-Poêles since the end of the Middle Ages. The workshop was established in 1865 and has a rare know-how only shared by 30 other foundries world-wide. With each bell they cast, they create a piece of art and a music instrument tuned to a specific note.”

The French newspaper Le Figaro said that it took several sessions for specialists from the foundry to find the three tones that once rang out from Our Lady of the Hour.

“Each bell corresponds to a specific note, which depends on the diameter and its relationship to the thickness,” said Paul Bergamo, director of Cornille Havard. “To measure the note, we used an electronic spectrum analyzer, and the tuner chose where and how deep the metal should be removed.”

Hope for the future

Before the war, Al-Saa’a’s clock would sound every quarter hour throughout the day, becoming part of the fabric of life in a richly diverse Mosul. In the 1990s, Mosul had been home to some 20,000 Christians. In 2014, when “Daesh,” or ISIS, took over, the vast majority of the city’s remaining Christians were expelled. Many fled to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, but many others emigrated to other countries in the Middle East and in the West.

Persistent fear and mistrust has made it difficult to bring them back, but since the beginning of the church and friary’s restoration the Dominicans have maintained them as a place for prayer, Fr. Poquillon said.

The priest has spoken in the past of how many Muslim residents of Mosul have nostalgia for a time when the Christian presence meant stability, learning, and prosperity. The bells had become a symbol of that. 

“Some old Muslim families tell me they were making silence every 15 minutes so they could listen to the bells,” Poquillon told Aleteia in a previous interview. “They really want us to restore the bells.”

Some Muslim families sent their children to the Dominican school there. 

“The chimes of the clock of this church marked our youth, when Mosul was a city where people lived together in peace,” Sister Luigina Sako, superior of the Roman House of the Chaldean Sisters Daughters of Mary and sister of Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, told Fides news agency in 2016. “I remember that as students, when we had an important exam, we all – Christians and Muslims – would bring cards with our requests for help to the Lourdes Grotto, which was housed in this church and which even our Islamic friends knew and honored as ‘the Church of the Miraculous Madonna.’”

As Mosul awaits the new bells, the Dominicans, together with UNESCO, are fixing the electro-mechanical elements needed to help Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael sing out again. 

And UNESCO predicts that the reconstruction of the church is set to be finalized in December 2023. 

Christians in the Middle EastIraqIslamist MilitantsPersecution of Christians
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