Iraq: Miracles do happen
On a visit to Iraq, JOHN PONTIFEX discovered a Christian community which has miraculously come back from the brink of extinction caused by genocidal Islamists. While many serious questions remain, the outlook for Christianity in a land where the Church dates back to the Apostles, is more promising than at any time in the last 20 years.
Which of us would swap a comfortable life in Sydney Australia, for a convent in Iraq, a country which you and your family spent years trying to escape?
That was the choice made by Sister Grace, singer, keyboardist and now a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate in Ankawa, outside Erbil, the regional capital of Kurdish northern Iraq.
It was in Ankawa that I met Sister Grace during a two-week deep dive into the situation facing Iraq’s Christians. I was there as part of my work with Aid to the Church in Need. As a Catholic charity supporting persecuted and other suffering Christians in 140 countries around the world, Iraq has been a priority country for ACN almost the entire 20 years I have been with the organisation.
I had been due to visit the country in the weeks before COVID struck and, almost exactly two years after the pandemic brought our lives to a dramatic standstill, I was finally able to make the trip.
Nearly eight years after Islamist militants Daesh (SIS) came out of nowhere to cause carnage of genocidal proportions I was fearful that I would find precious little left of a Christian community which has such deep roots in this land steeped in Biblical heritage.
Indeed, so comprehensive was Daesh’s violence that its devastating impact has prompted ever-growing concerns about the long-term survival of Christians in a place where, by tradition, the Church traces its lineage back to St Thomas and the First Century AD.
But the testimony of Sister Grace and others like her who I met criss-crossing the country, tempered such fears. I had the sense that, in spite of so many losses, there is hope for the future.
I met Sr Grace leading a group of youngsters learning liturgical music at Ankawa’s SS Peter and Paul Church, which every Friday opens its doors for Christian education and catechesis.
As many as 750 people from all across Ankawa take part in the sessions, which involve youth of all ages from toddlers to final-year school students.
Sister Grace explained: “I love being with the teenagers. They are really hungry for the Word of God – they are always asking questions.”
For Sister Grace, their enthusiasm is infectious. She told me they affirm her in her vocation, a way of life that has caused her huge struggles along the way. In fact, when she first mentioned she wanted to be a nun, some members of her family were so appalled they refused to speak to her for days on end.
Now, finally in the convent, she told me: “I feel content. I cannot see myself doing any other kind of work or living any other kind of life.”
Sister Grace will need all the courage and confidence possible in light of the catastrophic loss of faithful.
More than 20 years ago, there were well over one million Christians in Iraq – in fact, some estimates give a figure of 1.5 million. Now there could be as few as 150,000 left.
The impact of the Daesh years has been devastating.
When, in the summer of 2014, Daesh militants invaded Mosul and seized at least a dozen of the 25 Christian towns and villages in the Nineveh Plains, more than 120,000 fled into the night.
Aid to the Church in Need’s benefactors responded with undimmed generosity to appeals from Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, who woke up one August morning that year to find thousands of displaced faithful desperate for food and lodging.
Food, shelter, medicine, clothes, schooling and much more besides were urgently needed and alongside other mainly Catholic organisations, ACN provided ongoing tranches of emergency aid.
Nearly eight years on, as we travelled around we could see that much has changed since that time. Not only has Daesh been militarily defeated both in Mosul and Nineveh, many of the faithful have returned.
When combined Kurdish and Iraqi federal forces succeeded in driving Daesh out of Nineveh and Mosul in the autumn of 2016, the immediate task was to persuade the faithful to start to return. The faithful were so appalled by the devastation that they saw on occasional visits to their home districts they lost hope of returning.
ACN Middle East projects’ director Father Andrzej Halemba, who became acting chairman of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, tasked with rebuilding the damage, was instrumental in a population survey which initially showed as little as two percent support for returning home.
So, it came as a very pleasant surprise to arrive in Baghdeda (Qaraqosh), the largest of the Christian towns of Nineveh, and find nearly 50 percent of people are back.
Critical to this has been the rebuilding of homes, many of them set ablaze by the Daesh forces as a final act of aggression against the Christians they had sought to supplant. The militants used chemicals to increase the heat caused by the fire, which in turn intensified the damage done.
Again, Aid to the Church in Need worked in close collaboration with other mostly Catholic organisations to rebuild houses that could be salvaged from the wreckage. This work was undertaken on the proviso that the original owners would come back and restart their old lives in the town they knew so well.
In the event, ACN helped repair well over 2,000 homes. The charity then set about the task of restoring the churches, convents, presbyteries, parish halls, kindergartens and other structures.
The charity’s help has not gone unnoticed. Archbishop Warda told us: “You at ACN have helped save us from extinction here in Iraq.”
The charity was inspired by benefactors who reacted with such profound compassion to appeals for help at a time when the need in Iraq was greatest. One of the most distressing sights on visiting Nineveh in the immediate aftermath of the retreat of Daesh was to see altars smashed up, statues decapitated, graffiti on the beautiful polished local marble and a lingering stench of chemical, with everything covered in thick black soot.
Huge progress has been made in this area. One of the most remarkable moments of the trip was to visit the great Al-Tahira Church, the largest church not just in Baghdeda but possibly the whole of the country. Burnt, desecrated and a sorry ruin when I last saw it, this time I walked in and saw a church beautifully restored as a glorious statement of praise to God.
After Mass, and with the sound of the ancient liturgical Aramaic chant still ringing in our ears, so close to the language Jesus himself spoke, I got talking to some parishioners.
One such Mass-goer I approached was a young woman named Bushra Maty. I had seen her in the choir and now she was in the churchyard with her sister, Nadia. Also there was Bushra’s nine-year-old daughter Viola, a guitar player, like her father. Bushra told me: “I am happy to be back – really, it’s true. I am so glad to be home again. It’s the place where I want to live.” She looked around her with an air of confidence in the future.
Bushra said that most of the family is abroad, including Australia, the USA and France. I asked Bushra if she ever encourages family members to come back to Iraq. She said: “We don’t discuss the question of whether or not other family members should return. They are free to do what they feel is right for them. Of course, I hope they come back but it’s a decision for them.”
So what had persuaded Bushra to return? She explained that during the Daesh occupation the family had sought sanctuary in Lebanon but they soon ran out of money. Desperate to get a job, Bushra’s husband succeeded in applying to be a teacher at a government school back home in Nineveh. There was further joy when Bushra herself landed a job as a primary school teacher.
So jobs are critical. We received reports that up to 70 percent of Christians are unemployed and that for reasons of religious intolerance they sometimes struggle to get jobs.
But, with many opportunities still open to them, for the Christian community especially education and vocational training is of first-rank importance. The need to boost Christianeducation provision has preoccupied Church leaders in Iraq throughout the period of crisis. And the fruits of their labours were not difficult to find.
Just round the corner from Al-Tahira Church in Baghdeda is Al-Tahira Secondary School.Unlike almost all other ACN construction projects, which involved restoring buildings damaged by Daesh, Al-Tahira was built entirely from scratch.
With capacity for 625 students, the school is run by Baghdeda-based Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena. The school comes complete with science laboratories, conference hall, library and chapel. Such is the excellence of its state-of-the art facilities, stepping into the building felt like entering a brand new school in the UK. ACN was involved in providing more than 80 percent of the funding for the school. When we visited, the school had only opened its doors to the first students within the last month. The young people were clearly overjoyed to be there. Student Rameel Rabu Wadi, aged 16, told me: “With a chance to study well, we feel we have a big future here. Thank you so much for supporting us.”
Al-Tahira Secondary School is by no means the only major educational project the Church has undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the Daesh years. Alongside kindergartens, primary schools, a number of which had received funding from ACN, mention must be made of the Catholic University in Erbil. The brainchild of Archbishop Warda, the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil has stopped at nothing to build up CUE to be on a level with universities in the West, forging partnerships with universities all over Europe and America. Visiting CUE, we learned that there are now as many as 283 students there. Not a bad rate of progress given the project only began in 2017. Vice-chancellor Father Dankha Joola told us: “We are overwhelmed with the number of applicants.” He explained that this past year they had nearly 1,500 applicants but only had places for 168. CUE’s popularity is obvious. Expanding fast, CUE now boasts departments in everything from English through to Medical Laboratory Science, a programme ACN has helped to fund. The charity has also sponsored the Pope Francis Scholarship Programme, which has 150 students. I spoke to architecture student Joudy Fouad. Aged 18 and in her first year, Joudy is all the way from Aleppo in northern Syria. Hearing that it was a safe place for displaced and refugee Christians, Joudy and her family came to Ankawa when Aleppo fell under heavy bombardment during the civil war in Syria. Joudy told me: “What I like most about CUE is the environment. Everyone is friendly. You feel the teachers really care. I was dreaming of being at a university like this and here I am. I really appreciate all the help ACN has been able to give.” Joudy dreams of going back to Aleppo one day and using her architecture qualifications to help rebuild her bomb-shattered home city.
One of the points Father Dankha was keen to stress is CUE’s emphasis on giving graduates the best possible chance of getting decent jobs. He spoke about a careers’ fair held regularly and highlighted the students’ success rate at getting jobs almost immediately after completing their courses.
But success in educating and training young Iraqi Christians for long-term employment in the country is not in itself enough to secure the Church’s future. So much is conditional on security. In the Nineveh town of Bartela, Syriac Catholic parish priest Father Behnam Benoka described how, in the last few weeks, Shabak Shi‘a Muslims had seized several pieces of agricultural land belonging to Christians, each up to 25,000 square metres in size. He said that, owing to the ethno-religious group’s influence, the Christian owners had little recourse to justice. Another priest described the Christians in Iraq as “a sheep between two oxen” – largely helpless in the face of threats both from the Shabak, who, he said, were supported by Baghdad-based prominent Shi’a groups, and Daesh “sleeper cells” that could awaken at any time. The priest, who asked not to be named, said the threat to Christians was increased by corruption and a breakdown in the rule of law, exacerbated by continuing political turmoil. More than six months on from the federal elections, there is at the time of writing still no President and Prime Minister.
It doesn’t help that Nineveh – home to one of the largest concentrations of Christians in Iraq – is on the delicate fault-line between the semi-autonomous region administered by the Kurdish Regional Government and federal Iraq, run out of Baghdad. There is territory disputed between these two centres of power in Iraq and Christians, caught in the middle, suffer the economic and security consequences of a region controlled by check-points and where competing groups are jostling for influence and power.
And it is for this reason that the Church in Iraq has complemented its effort on rebuilding the Christian presence in Nineveh, with expanding its plans for the future in Ankawa. A potentially critical breakthrough came last year when Ankawa, a majority-Christian district, was granted increased political autonomy. No longer a sub-district of Erbil, Ankawa’s fast expansion gave its political leaders the perfect case to show the area should have greater control over taxation and public spending and more political leverage. Archbishop Warda has long-since argued that Christians in Ankawa displaced from Nineveh should be given the choice to build a long-term future in his diocese. That many have done so explains why the Syriac Catholic hierarchy has created a new diocese covering Kurdistan but based in Ankawa. Archbishop Nathaniel Nizar Semaan, for 14 years chaplain to the UK Syriac Catholic community, based in Brook Green, West London, returned to his native Iraq in 2019 and has taken up the position of Archbishop. Based in Ankawa, he is starting a new diocese from scratch. With only six priests, no offices and precious little other resources, he has moved quickly to build up pastoral provision for Syriac Catholics. This community, largely made up of people displaced from Nineveh, have increasingly set aside plans to join those returning to Baghdeda, the centre of Syria Catholic life. Instead, they want to set down permanent roots in Ankawa and elsewhere in Kurdistan. Archbishop Semaan’s offices, currently a series of caravans, his priests’ salaries, and other basic costs are met by Aid to the Church in Need.
But there is one region of Iraq where, at this stage, prospects for a Christian revival as yet remain at best uncertain. Mosul, Iraq’s second city, is one of the oldest and most important historical centres of Christianity. We met Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Najib Moussa of Mosul. But significantly we did not meet him in the city but in Ankawa. There he has created a library and museum for ancient manuscripts and other artefacts. Many of these he personally rescued from Mosul, in the run-up to Daesh’s occupation of the city in summer 2014. He explains: “We have digitised more than 8,000 manuscripts going back to the 10 th century and 13,000 photographs. The photos are very important for sociological reasons and photos of archaeological sites.” But while Mosul’s past is ancient and venerable, its present situation is very different, as Archbishop Najib is not afraid to admit. He said: “We have 14 churches and two monasteries totally destroyed. Some of our churches go back to the fourth century but now they are full of garbage.” Critically, reports differ about precisely how many Christian families have returned to Mosul but there could be as few as 50. Some Christian heritage, including Mosul’s Our Lady of The Hour (Clock Church) are being restored but it is not enough to encourage people to return. Again and again, across Iraq we met bishops, priests, Sisters and lay people referred to a widespread perception among Christians that there is underlying hostility to Christians in Mosul. Memories are still vivid of how when Daesh came, neighbours of Christians, reportedly colluded with the militants, confiscating or stealing their homes and other possessions. “It will take a long time to heal this wound,” one Sister said.
As yet, Mosul is the exception to the rule – elsewhere the prospects for Christian revival completely surpassed what I might have expected when I last visited in late summer 2017 soon after the defeat of Daesh. And while many challenges remain, including the drip-drip of ongoing migration, hopes for the future for Christians in Iraq are arguably brighter than at any point in the last 20 years. Perhaps the best example of this was what we saw in Batnaya – perhaps the most devastated of the Nineveh towns. The last time I visited Batnaya, it was little more than a pile of rubble. It was eerily quiet – not a soul about. Now it is buzzing with life. In the chapel next to St Kyriakos Church you can still see the Daesh graffiti which states: “All you slaves of the Cross, you will have no peace in the Islamic land. Either you go or we will kill you.” While the slogan survives, its threat has passed into obscurity, at least for now. Perhaps 500 Christians are now back in Batnaya. In St Kyriakos Church, we saw craftsmen working feverishly, laying the flagstones, sanding and smoothing the marble altar, painting the walls. The church’s deacon Bassam, a teacher in the recently reopened Secondary School, said: “We are wanting to get everything finished as quickly as we can so we can have Easter services here – the first services since before Daesh came.” Iraq’s Christians have suffered more than their fair share of Good Fridays. Now, finally some of them at least are enjoying a Resurrection – a rejuvenation of Christian faith in their land.