One of the world’s oldest churches is crumbling deep in Iraq’s desert, another victim of years of conflict, government negligence and climate change in a country with a rich heritage.

After Pope Francis made a historic visit to Iraq in March, many Iraqis hoped that busloads of tourists would flock to Al Aqiser church southwest of the capital Baghdad.

But in a country that has been battered by consecutive conflicts and economic crises, the church — like Iraq’s numerous Christian, Islamic and Mesopotamian relics — has been left to weather away.

All that remains of Al Aqiser, which has stood in Ain Tamr for more than 1,500 years, are crumbling brick and red earthen walls.

Archaeologist Zahd Muhammad blamed this on “climate conditions, the fact that under Saddam Hussein the area was transformed into a military firing range and the lack of regular conservation”.

Ain Tamr mayor Raed Fadhel said upkeep is a question of budget.

“Such maintenance requires an enormous amount of money, but we only get meagre funds” from the federal government, he said.

Some 60 kilometres (38 miles) further east, Shiite shrines in Karbala attract millions of pilgrims each year.

But these potential visitors fail to stop by Iraq’s numerous ancient churches, its Mesopotamian cities and the fabled “ziggurat” pyramid-like structures of Babylon, a UNESCO World Heritage site, residents and officials say.

Missed opportunities

Abdullah al-Jlihawi, who lives in Diwaniya province bordering Karbala, told AFP he believes that “foreigners care more about our heritage than we do”.

“Until the 1980s, an American university led excavations here, there were plenty of job opportunities,” he said.

“Our parents and grandparents worked on those sites, but all that stopped in the 1990s” with the international embargo against Saddam’s regime.

Diwaniya’s governor, Zuhair al-Shaalan, boasts of the province’s more than 2,000 historic sites and sees in each a potential economic windfall.

But almost 20 years since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam’s dictatorship, promising democracy and prosperity, Iraqis are still waiting to for an economic upturn.

Diwaniya is home to Nippur, the ancient Sumerian city and jewel of Iraq’s glorious Mesopotamian past with its temples, libraries and palaces.

VR Sunil Gohil