Because of their mutual interest, members of the two faiths are reaching out to one another after decades of conflict.
The Church of Kokheh, founded by St. Mari during the 1st century in the modern-day al-Mada’in district of Iraq, is one of the most important sites of Eastern Christianity.
St. Mari, also known as Palut, was one of the disciples of Mar Addai, alias St. Thaddeus of Edessa, who is known for having traveled across Mesopotamia to spread the word of Jesus and carry out missionary work. His travels are chronicled in the 7th-century book Acts of Mar Mari, written circa 600-650 at the monastery of Dayr Qoni in the al-Mada’in district. According to the book, Mar Mari and his disciples arrived in the al-Mada’in district after crossing the Tigris River, but were welcomed by a group of skeptical locals who immediately reported them to the land’s ruler, King Artabanus IV. The king asked the foreigners to provide empirical proof of their missionary vocation and Mar Mari promptly responded to his request by curing the ruler’s daughter from leprosy and performing other miracles. The saint’s deeds impressed King Artabanus IV so much that he provided Mar Mari with a plot of land on which to build a church in an area called Kokheh, literally meaning “huts,” as many local farmers were living in huts at the time, which was located to west of his palace in the capital Qtispon. Mar Mari turned a previously existing temple into a small church that was later enlarged, especially during the reign of Catholicos Mar Awa the Great in the 550s.
In the following decades, the Church of Kokheh became a very important site for the Church of the East. It was from here that many missionaries set out to spread the message of Christianity across the Persian Empire and into Central Asia and China. For centuries, it served as the the residence for the heads of the Eastern Church, the Catholicos Patriarchs, and even after the residence was moved to Baghdad in 780 Kokheh kept playing an important role as the official place for the consecration of the patriarchs. Today, at least 24 tombs of patriarchs are still found on the site. But for the past 20 years, visitors were prohibited from visiting the church due to the risk posed by troops of the Islamic State who have been roaming around the area.
It was only few months ago that this important site of Christianity was once again open to the public. Last month, a congregation of Christian visitors from Baghdad were visiting the site under the guidance of Father Mansour al-Makhlissi, founder and head of the Center for Eastern Studies at the Roman Catholic Church in Baghdad, when something unexpected happened. As Al-Monitor reports, after the visit, which included the nearby site Tal Qasr Bint al-Qadi, where the ruins of another church built in a similar style to the Church of Kokheh are found, the group was invited to lunch by local Muslims. Despite it being the fasting month of Ramadan, meaning they themselves could not enjoy food, the locals did not hesitate to offer grilled fish to the Christian visitors. Soon enough, the two groups discovered their mutual interest in the Church of Kokheh. To Christians, it represents one of the most important sites of Eastern Christianity. “This was the highest spiritual seat of the Eastern Church,” Father al-Makhlissi explained to the group during the visit, “This is where the Christian expansion to Asia started and reached China and India.”
To Muslims, it is an important archaeological site for Mesopotamian culture at large, and one that can attract visitors to the area after years-long absence of tourism due to the rise of the Islamic State. Together, Muslims and Christians started to discuss restoration plans to be conducted with support from the local government and local tour operators. Local authorities endorsed the plan and the Iraq Ministry of Culture hopes that the initiative will re-launch tourism around Mesopotamian cultural heritage sites.
For local Muslims, the presence of tourists in the area can help to signal to the outside world that the region is finally safe after years of political turmoil and conflict. “It proves that is possible to rebuild what terrorism destroyed,” Sheikh Saad Thabit al-Jubouri, a prominent local tribal leader in al-Mada’in involved with the restoration plan, told Al-Monitor, “whether on the construction level or in the social relationship between the different Iraqi religions.”
To Father Maissar, the minister of the nearby Chaldean Christian church of St. George, the joint restoration offers a chance to re-unite Muslims and Christians in a region where the two groups have historically managed to co-exist peacefully for hundreds of years. “This cooperation unites Muslims and Christians after having been divided by the atrocities and violence of [IS] over the past few years,” he told Al-Monitor. “Reviving this church is perhaps a new starting point in the process of uniting Muslims and Christians during the holy month of Ramadan.”