WASHINGTON, D.C. - During his 2009-2010 deployment to Iraq, Father Jeffrey Whorton, CH (MAJ), USA, celebrated Mass for U.S. troops in the war-torn country’s oldest Christian monastery. St. Elijah’s Monastery stood with dignified grace on a hillside over Mosul, across the Tigris River from the Old Testament site of Nineveh, and Father Whorton, along with fellow military chaplains and their assistants, gave many tours of the 14-hundred-year-old monastery.
This week, the Associated Press reports that satellite images confirm destruction of St. Elijah’s at the hands of ISIS fighters sometime between Aug. 27 and Sept. 28, 2014. As it turns out, Father Whorton, who serves on active duty with endorsement and faculties from the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, was the last priest ever to preside at the liturgy on the ancient altar of the monastery’s sanctuary before its closure in the spring of 2010.
“It was a sacred place,” Father Whorton says of the monastery, built in the late sixth century and named for an Assyrian Christian monk whose name it bore. In 1743, according to the AP, as many as 150 monks were martyred there on orders of a Persian general when they refused to convert to Islam. Celebrating Mass on the sanctuary’s old altar, Father Whorton says, was “wonderful in a mystical and powerful way.”
The monastery, now in ruins, is still considered a holy site by Iraq’s war-weary Christians, whose population has dwindled from 1.3 million to 300,000 since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
In 2003, Iraqi troops occupied the monastery, tank-blasting a wall and filling the old cistern with garbage. Then, U.S. forces took over, leaving behind a little graffiti but the remains of the monastery otherwise intact. After learning that ISIS finally destroyed St. Elijah’s Monastery, Father Whorton, now stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., told the United Kingdom of Great Britain’s national daily, The Guardian, “Why we treat each other like this is beyond me. Elijah the prophet must be weeping.”