Papal visit to Iraq’s largest Catholic town boosts hopes that Christians will return


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AID TO THE CHURCH IN NEED

SINCE 2003, ALL IRAQIS HAVE SUFFERED THE BURDENS OF WAR: kidnapping, displacement, and death. This period, however, has been particularly difficult for non-Muslims. Under Al-Qaeda and ISIS, non-Muslims, such as Yezidis and Christians, were specifically targeted for assassinations and extortion. In 2010, 58 Catholics were killed by Al-Qaeda gunmen in Baghdad during the celebration of Mass.

This faith-based targeting has created a problem specific to Christians: emigration. With Pope Francis’s historic visit to Iraq, however, residents of Qaraqosh—largely rebuilt with the help of Aid to the Church in Need and its donors—hope this trend will begin to change.

Iraq’s largest Catholic town, 20 minutes from Mosul, had a population of up to 55,000 Catholics before it was occupied by ISIS for two years in 2014-16. Today, already 23,000 faithful have returned, according to Father Ammar Yako, who runs a center for displaced families. The remainder mostly lives in Australia, the United States, Sweden, France, and Germany. Until now, only a few families from abroad have returned, mostly from France and Germany. However, many hope that the Pope’s ground-breaking trip will not only cause emigration to slow but even persuade some families to consider returning to Iraq.

Revan Possa, 30, who works at the Church-run Supreme Board for Reconstruction of Baghdeda (the Syriac name of Qaraqosh) office, reports that he has already heard news of possible returnees: “We have heard about families from Qaraqosh who cried when they saw photos of the trip and are thinking about returning home. We need safety and support from the West to stay here. I like this land and I want to stay here.”

Joseph Giuliana, 44, a teacher and author, himself returned to Qaraqosh after many years living as a refugee in France. “We needed this visit to fill us with hope again: the hope that we have the right to stay here and live here as the original people of this land.” For years, he has been building a home for his wife and three children on the outskirts of Qaraqosh, but slowly, afraid that he would be forced to leave again. Now, however, he is doubling down on construction, confident that Christians are here to stay.

He says: “For Christians here, as well as those living as refugees in Europe and America, we all think that this visit gives them hope for the life of Christians in Iraq. I am one of them. With the Pope’s visit, we feel that we are not alone. We feel that we are safe because someone cares about us.”

Father Araam Romel Qia, 40, a Chaldean Catholic priest in Batnaya, says one of the Pope’s main goals is to encourage Christians to stay in Iraq. Like others, however, he warns that the Church continues to face challenges.

“The suffering of Christians continues, as long as there is an Islamic constitution that does not protect the rights of Christians and other minorities. The persecution of Christians and minorities will continue as long as there are military militias and a weak government. We hope for continued support from the international community.”

In truth, there are difficulties which lead residents from abroad to doubt the possibility of a return to Qaraqosh. Youth unemployment is 70 percent; the surrounding countryside is dominated by hostile Iran-backed Shiite militias; and the town still bears marks of its two-year occupation by ISIS. For the devout Christians of Qaraqosh, however, with a Mass attendance rate of 70 percent—among the highest in the world for a middle-income country—they have a higher calling: the preservation of Christianity in the cradle of civilization.

—Xavier Bisits

SOURCE: Aid to the Church in Need