Pope Francis' visit to Iraq is “a message of resistance, an invitation to remain in our land and homeland” while continuing to “bear witness to our Christian faith,” said Thabit Michael speaking to AsiaNews.
AsiaNews met the Christian sculptor through Fr Paul Thabit Mekko, head of the Christian community in Karamles, Nineveh Plain (northern Iraq). Author of several statues of the Virgin from Qaraqosh, including one for the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Aid in Baghdad, scene of an al-Qaeda massacre in 2010, Thabit Michael believes that the pontiff’s presence “will give courage and help us rebuild our existence.”
Born in 1963, he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Currently, he lives in Qaraqosh, a city in the Nineveh Plain, that bears a name from Ottoman times, but which Christians still call by its Aramaic name of Bakhdida.
During his long career, he has made dozens of statues, sacred and profane, now located in several provinces of Iraq. Some of them were destroyed by the iconoclastic madness of Islamic State (IS) group.
“I developed an artistic outlook as a child, when I stayed at my uncle's house in Mosul. He too is a sculptor, and I spent a lot of time admiring a big ancient door” with engraved scenes of Nineveh. His uncle made a winged bull now found at the archaeological site of ancient Nineveh.
“Through him I got into the arts and this profession. The environment in which I grew up has proved fundamental for my life, my choice of profession,” Thabit Michael explained.
“Most of my work is in the Nineveh Plain. Several statues were torn down by the jihadists, especially those in monasteries and churches. Recently, I have started to create others, to replace the broken ones, with my son’s help. He wants to follow into my own footsteps, because he too works in the arts.”
Through our work, Michael said, “we want to bear witness to the Christian presence. We are children of this land, of this culture, of this ancient heritage; we shall keep alive the memory of our ancestors who were among the first apostles and evangelisers of Christianity.”
The Islamic State destroyed a number of his works of arts, including the statue of Our Lady of the Tiger in Mosul, the one in the Chaldean Cathedral in the Old City in the western part of the city, and a monument in the Chaldean Bishop's House.
Some of these have already been rebuilt, others are still waiting but are a living sign of a community that wants to be reborn after so much suffering.
“Despite jihadi violence, relations with Muslims remain good, especially in the cultural and artistic fields, where I am greatly respected and have many colleagues, not only in words but also in deeds. There is great respect for artistic work, even if others have a different attitude, which is harder to uproot.”
This is also true for Kurds. “Although relations with the majority re cordial, some have hostile attitudes towards Christians.”
One man commissioned me to make a statue for a Chaldean monastery in Iraqi Kurdistan. Some of the Muslim Kurds in the area were against it and we had to place the statue inside the church.”
Michael’s latest work “is a statue dedicated to coming home after emigration. Our hope is that the Pope's arrival will empower us and give us the courage to stay and rebuild.”