Pope Francis to see "miracle" return of Christians to Iraq

Christians are slowly returning to Iraqi territory after Daesh terrorists' actions
Banderas de Irak y de la Santa Sede ondean en un puente peatonal cerca de una gran pancarta que muestra una señal de bienvenida al papa Francisco, antes de su visita a Irak en la ciudad de Karemlash, a unos 28 kilómetros al sureste de la ciudad norteña de Irak de Mosul, el 28 de febrero de 2021

AFP/ZAID AL-OBEIDI  -   Flags of Iraq and the Holy See fly on a pedestrian bridge near a large banner displaying a sign welcoming Pope Francis ahead of his visit to Iraq in the town of Karemlash, some 28 kilometres southeast of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, on February 28, 2021

In just one night in August 2014, Daesh terrorists overran the Nineveh plain in Iraq and more than 150,000 Christians had to flee their homes. They are slowly returning and, despite being reduced by half, the Pope will see "a real miracle" after so much pain and destruction.

Francis will become the first pontiff to travel to Iraq, from 5-8 March, a trip he always wanted in order to show his closeness to the Christian community persecuted and almost annihilated after the Daesh invasion, and for this he will travel to Mosul, Erbil and Qaraqosh.

"The Pope is going to see a miracle. He will not see destruction, a city in ruins, but he will see how the Christians of Qaraqosh have set to work and rebuilt their city," Maria Lozano, the Spanish international spokesperson for the Pontifical Association Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), told Efe. 

Un cartel de bienvenida al papa Francisco cuelga fuera de la iglesia católica siríaca de Mar Thoma (Santo Tomás), en la ciudad predominantemente cristiana de Qaraqosh (Baghdeda), en la provincia de Nínive, a unos 30 kilómetros de Mosul
AFP/ZAID AL-OBEIDI - A sign welcoming Pope Francis hangs outside the Syriac Catholic church of Mar Thoma (St Thomas) in the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh (Baghdeda) in Nineveh province, some 30 kilometres from Mosul
The slow and painful return

Lozano assures that "almost 80% of the houses are in the final stages of reconstruction and 50% of the population has returned to an area that for years was a symbol of jihadism, terrorism and death". 

In 2003, there were an estimated 1.4 million Christians in the region and today there are about 300,000.

Qaraqosh or Bajdida, as Christians prefer to call it in Aramaic, 32 kilometres southeast of Mosul, was the largest Christian city in Iraq: after Iraqi forces and their allies recaptured these territories from Daesh in October 2016, tens of thousands of displaced Christians returned to their homes in a slow and painful return. 

Iglesia católica siria de la Inmaculada Concepción (Al-Tahira-l-Kubra), en la ciudad predominantemente cristiana de Qaraqosh (Baghdeda)
AFP/ZAID AL-OBEIDI - The Syrian Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (Al-Tahira-l-Kubra) in the predominantly Christian city of Qaraqosh (Baghdeda)

According to the latest data published by ACN, 43% of Christian families living in Qaraqosh before the jihadist invasion have returned.

The benefactors donated 48.23 million euros to the pontifical association over the years to help Christians return, especially in the Nineveh plain.

According to ACN, in addition to causing the exodus of Christians, Daesh jihadists destroyed the cities: 14,936 Christian houses were damaged, 1,009 were totally destroyed and 3,270 burned. 45.53% of Christians have returned to the Nineveh plain, a total of 9,176 families out of 20,152 before 2014.

But Daesh terrorists also destroyed the enormous Christian heritage, with 369 churches and convents damaged, 34 of them completely destroyed and 132 burned.

Father Georges Jahola, one of the parish priests of Qaraqosh who was in charge of the first reconstructions, explained to Efe by telephone that in these years "good work has been done" and that "Christians have been returning and have been able to settle in their homes", but many "have decided to leave the country because they say there is no stability and no future". 

Esta foto, tomada el 24 de febrero de 2021, muestra una vista interior de la Iglesia Católica Siríaca de la Inmaculada Concepción (Al-Tahira-l-Kubra)
AFP/ZAID AL-OBEIDI - This photo taken on 24 February 2021 shows an interior view of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (Al-Tahira-l-Kubra)

Jahola points out that the Pope will see that "the Christian population has been reduced by half, but those who have stayed have hope and the desire to continue, to be a witness in this land and to rebuild what has been destroyed". 

The parish priest recounts the frantic and joyful hours of the Christians preparing for the Pope's visit: "In Qaraqosh, which we prefer to call Bajdida, we have been preparing for this visit for a long time and with a lot of work".

"We want to welcome the Pope in the best possible way, not only externally, by embellishing the city with Iraqi and Vatican flags, posters, songs and dances, but also internally with various activities in the churches," he says.

For Jahola, what touches his heart the most is to see those families who fled to Europe but have decided to return because "they have their roots here". "For Christians, this is their land, worth rebuilding and worth living in". 

Mapa que muestra los lugares clave de Irak que el papa Francisco tiene previsto visitar del 5 al 8 de marzo, en la primera gira papal al país
AFP/AFP - Map showing the key places in Iraq that Pope Francis is scheduled to visit from 5-8 March on the first papal tour of the country
The Church of the Immaculate Conception, symbol of reconstruction

These days, Christians spend hours cleaning and decorating the large Syrian-Catholic church of the Immaculate Conception in Al-Tahira, which was burned and looted and badly damaged, in which the Pope will officiate a mass.

In the church courtyard there was a replica of the Lourdes grotto and during the Daesh occupation this area was used as a shooting range and bullet holes can still be seen in the walls. In 2016, when the jihadists fled, manuscripts and prayer books were burned inside the church.

Francis will see a fully rebuilt church, but where traces of the destroyed paintings and religious artefacts have been left behind, as well as parts of the wall with Daesh slogans on them to record "what terrorism has inflicted on us all", according to Father Ammar Yako, supervisor of the restoration work at Al-Tahira.