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In the Old City of Mosul, on the Nineveh plain in Iraq, for several hours on March 7, the carillon of the convent of Our Lady of the Hour resounded in the streets. The inauguration of the bells and the clock of the Christian building, in the presence of the Iraqi Minister of Culture, the Director General of UNESCO, and the Dominican friars, was a very symbolic step.
Before the war, the bell tower of the convent coordinated its ringing every day with the chanting of the al-Nuri mosque, a few hundred meters away. Then its bells were removed and its iconic clock destroyed. For seven years, the bell tower was silent.
Mosul, proclaimed for a time the capital of the Islamic State between 2014 and 2017 – Mosul, which was ravaged from within and silenced – finally regained this March 7 a part of its stolen soul.
A spiritual and cultural emblem of Mosul
Some speak of resurrection, others of rebirth. Everyone, Mosul Christians and Muslims alike, hope that Our Lady of the Hour will once again become the cultural and spiritual hub that for a long time radiated throughout the country.
The Latin convent, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was canonically opened in 1850, when the Province of France sent a mission of Dominican friars. It became a place of prayer and encounter among the inhabitants, a place of education and accompaniment of world events. It was within these walls that the first printing press in Mesopotamia was housed. It was also at Our Lady of the Hour that Iraq received its very first bell tower, in 1880, financed by the French government.
“This convent is a very striking place for the inhabitants; it has a fence on one side and a more open part with the courtyard and the church on the other. It’s a crossroads of the old city, between societies and religions,” said Dominican friar Olivier Poquillon at the site.
Although more than 80% of the historic center of Mosul was destroyed during the occupation of the Islamic State, the convent was an exception. For a time, the building was used as the organization’s headquarters, serving in turn as a court, a prison, and a training center.
After the liberation of the city in July 2017, the damage to the nave, the refectory, and the bell tower was too extensive for the Dominicans to move back in. A slow and long phase of reconstruction then began. “Today we are in the process of continuing the story,” says Fr. Olivier Poquillon.
Reconstruction supported by UNESCO
In the Iraqi metropolis, Unesco has been leading a major renovation project since 2019, “Revive the Spirit of Mosul,” financially supported by the United Arab Emirates and the European Union. “Reconstruction will succeed and Iraq will regain its influence only if the human dimension is given priority; education and culture are the key elements. They are forces of unity and reconciliation,” says Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.
The organization is focusing all its efforts on “a symbolic site of Iraqi diversity and dialogue between cultures and religions”: old Mosul. The enormous $105 million project – the largest ever initiated by UNESCO – involves several hundred experts of different nationalities, and also includes the Syriac Catholic cathedral Al-Tahira and the al-Nouri mosque.
The renovation of Our Lady of the Hour is scheduled for completion in September 2023. Rebuilding the trust of the people of Mosul, wounded by 20 years of violence and conflict, may take longer.
In a country where 40% of the population is under 14 years of age, the challenge of education for peace and living together in Mosul is one of the future priorities of the Dominicans.
“Externally, Our Lady of the Hour has already regained her splendor. But internally, everything remains to be done,” says Fr. Olivier Poquillon. “Our objective is for the convent to become again a place of prayer and meeting for our youngest Muslim neighbors, who have not had the opportunity to meet Christians, unlike their parents or grandparents,” explains the Dominican priest. “The city has experienced the pangs of the desert crossing … We hope to finally see the light of Easter!”