Will the pope’s visit to long-suffering Qaraqosh change its reality?

This article was originally published on March 6, 2021, by Rudaw.

QARAQOSH, Iraq (by Sura Ali for Rudaw) — In the early morning of August 6, 2014, children in the town of Qaraqosh, in the Hamdaniya district southeast of Mosul, played in the cool before the rise of the summer sun. Dhuha, a young mother, was inside her home that overlooked where they played. At dawn, Dhuha and other locals had heard the rumble of what sounded like bombardments. They paid it short-term attention, hoping it would pass, and carried on as normal.

A few hours later, there was a sudden, loud crash, and Dhuha rushed outside. The joyous cries of playing children could no longer be heard; instead, the distressed calls of adults were as loud as could be. They told Dhuha that her son had been killed. So too was his cousin, and a young wife-to-be.

Fear spread in the hearts of the people of Qaraqosh, and they began leaving everything behind in search of safety.

Dhuha has spoken little about what happened on that traumatic day; she chose not to speak to Rudaw or other media outlets about what happened, so as not to relive that pain. But today, Dhuha is preparing to deliver a speech before Pope Francis at al-Tahira Church in Qaraqosh, an event that will be broadcast worldwide.

“We believe that our children today are in the bosom of Jesus Christ, our Lord in the Kingdom, but we who are alive try to forgive the aggressor because our teacher Jesus forgave his executioners, and by him we imitate our pain and we give testimony that love is stronger than anything else,” she will tell the congregation.

“The martyrdom of these three angels was a warning sign for us, otherwise the people would have remained in Baghdeda (Qaraqosh), and they would inevitably have fallen into the grip of ISIS… Their souls saved the whole city.”

The Nineveh town of Qaraqosh has been preparing to welcome Pope Francis. Though his visit is being met with excitement, the brutal reign of the Islamic State (ISIS) still lingers in the minds of locals.

Workers cement a sidewalk in Qaraqosh on March 2, 2021. Photo: Bilind T. Abdullah / Rudaw

The town’s al-Tahira church, built in 1862, is one of the oldest and largest churches in the town, but it was partially destroyed by ISIS. The church, which will welcome the pope, was once used as an execution site and training ground for ISIS members.

Al-Tahira’s priest believes the church was attacked because of its significance to Iraq’s Christian minority.

“[ISIS] burnt this church specifically because it is the biggest church in Iraq, and [attacking] the large Christian presence for them here was like attacking all Christians in Iraq,” priest Ammar Yako previously told Rudaw.

Of the thousands of people that wanted to attend al-Tahira’s Mass at which Pope Francis will be present, only 600 will be able to attend.

Before ISIS, it had a population of 50,000, but so far only 23,000 have returned. Political instability and uncertainty about their future in Iraq are driving many Christians to emigrate. Qaraqosh is considered the Christian capital of Iraq, but this small, largely forgotten town has suffered from war, murder, and forced displacement for years. Qaraqosh experienced its first mass exodus in June 2014, when ISIS took control of the nearby city of Mosul.

Yako was on a short trip to the United States when he heard the news that Mosul had fallen under ISIS control. “Do not go back to Iraq, Iraq is over,” he was told.

Instead of heeding that advice, Yako brought his trip to an abrupt end to return to Qaraqosh to reassure his people.

“Late June was the first wave of displacement,” Yako said of Qaraqosh. “We were helping many families to leave Qaraqosh safely, after they were afraid of ISIS bombing the village.”

The priest’s voice broke, and his eyes filled with tears; he paused for a while.

The advance of ISIS was unrelenting. In what was a taster of what was to come for the town, Qaraqosh was bombed by ISIS in late June. On August 6, 2014, the day Dhuha lost her son, ISIS took control of Qaraqosh, as the Peshmerga withdrew from the city. ISIS were not ousted from the city until joint Kurdish and Iraqi government operations to recapture Hamdaniya district took place between October 17 and 22, 2016.

“The second wave of displacement was on August 6, when ISIS resumed its bombing of Qaraqosh, but in a more ferocious manner,” Yako said.

Faces were cut out of metalwork in al-Tahira church in Qaraqosh when ISIS took over the city, as seen in this photo from March 2, 2021. Photo: Bilind T. Abdullah / Rudaw

As we spoke to the priest, an elderly woman with a white scarf on her head from which some white hairs blew. With quick steps of joy, she entered the priest’s room and asked if she would be able to sing a hymn in front of Pope Francis when he came to town.

Mama Khidr Sukariyah who was born in 1939, said she has lived a long, fulfilling life, even though she had to flee her town, “a part of her soul”, in 2014, along with three of her sons and their families.

Mama lived as a displaced person in Erbil for three years. She returned home once ISIS were routed from her hometown, but without one of her sons, who decided to start a new chapter of his life in France, leaving his Mama with a broken heart.

Now, she is looking forward to something that can heal some of her wounds – meeting Pope Francis in person, for the first time in her life.

“My house was completely looted by ISIS, they left nothing for us,” Mama said. “We ran to Ainkawa for three years and we were paying more than a thousand dollars in rent per month.”

“We returned after the liberation of Qaraqosh in 2017, because this is our land, there is no land like home.”

Many Christians who fled ISIS have either stayed in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, where an estimated 138,000 Christians sought refuge, or, like Mama’s son, have started new lives abroad. While those who have returned have been rebuilding fractured but vibrant communities with resolve, some still feel vulnerable and eye better lives elsewhere.

According to William Warda, co-founder of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, Christians left in Iraq number up to 400,000 – down from 1.5 million in 2003, the year a US-led invasion paved the way for bloody sectarian warfare that devastated the country’s historic and diverse Christian communities.

Those that felt they had no choice but to leave Qaraqosh turned to higher powers to keep their homes safe.

“When we left our house that fateful night, I stared at a little painting of Jesus in the middle of the living room, and I addressed him: Keep this house safe,” said Bushra Musa, a 55-year-old woman who also lived in the Kurdistan Region for three years.

On a wall in her home was a message: “The Islamic State is remaining and expanding,” it read.

Bushra said her house was marked by the Peshmerga security forces present in the town at the time as booby-trapped – but her will to enter her home was stronger than any fear of what might await her.

“I entered the house despite the shouting of some security forces near the site, who had warned me not to enter, thinking that the house was booby-trapped,” she said.

When Bushra walked into her home, she found that it had been “looted, but not burned or destroyed.”

“I was searching left and right for the painting of Jesus, until I found it broken on the ground.”

Across Iraq, the Pope’s visit has spurred efforts to tidy up the areas he is travelling through. As we walked around Qaraqosh, we saw workers repairing and painting street tiles, painting walls, and planting flowers and trees along the street leading to al-Tahira Church on which the pope will tread.

The cost of these small projects, paid for with public funds, amount to 87 million Iraqi dinars. An additional 100 million Iraqi dinars have gone into setting up big screens in the town center from which people can watch the Pope’s prayer, according to Rami Poles, director of the Hamdaniya municipality. It has also paid for six helipads for the arriving special guests.

Helipads are put in place in Qaraqosh as part of preparations for the pope’s visit, as seen in this photo from March 2, 2021. Photo: Bilind T. Abdullah / Rudaw

But on the side of the city that will not be walked through by the pope, the scene is entirely different.

On the street on which Ikram Hermes, 38, lives with her three children and her husband, we did not see any workers cleaning or painting the street devoid of sidewalks. There were houses that still bear scorch marks on their walls; some homes lay in complete ruin.

“Before our return to Qaraqosh, we were using the Google Earth application to see whether our homes had been bombed or not. One night, I saw the images of my completely destroyed house,” Ikram said. She looked at the face of her mother sitting next to her, and her eyes teared up.

“When we returned to Qaraqosh, my father died of a heart attack when he saw the ruins of the house.”

Parts of Qaraqosh remain derelict, as seen in this photo from March 2, 2021. Photo: Bilind T. Abdullah / Rudaw

Ikram recounted the first years of her return, when the area was deserted and life was very difficult, and most houses were demolished, or blackened because ISIS had torched them. But she and her husband have since rebuilt their homes. Paintings decorate the walls, a picture of Ikram’s father in their center. Shades of blue run through the house, from the stylish, bright seating set in their living room to the pastel exterior walls.

Though their home is elegant, Ikram and her neighbors are beset by poor access to basic services.

“Services are still very poor in the area. We may suffer for days from cuts to water, and our homes are only provided with electricity for four hours a day.” she said.

No matter the difficulties, Qaraqosh is Ikram’s town and the heirloom of her ancestors, she said, and no matter the difficulties, she will never leave – no matter how much or how little the pope’s visit changes things.

“I do not expect the pope’s visit to change anything in our reality,” she said.