Pope Francis is expected to be in Iraq this Friday, March 5, for a historic visit. The sovereign pontiff will stay in the country for three days to meet with Iraqis and, in particular, with the Christians of Iraq. When Saddam Hussein fell in 2003, there were a million of them, they would only be between 300,000 and 400,000 now. In the main Christian city, Qaraqosh, residents are gradually returning, after fleeing Islamic State jihadists in 2014.
On August 6, 2014, when Daesh was at the gates of the city, the 50,000 inhabitants desert in a few hours. “We didn’t take much, just two blankets for my grandson who was only 3 weeks old, water, some clothes, we got in the car and drove off,” says Nidam. Six years later, the man is proud to have returned and showcased his home next to a red-roofed church. Like him, 25,000 people have been resettled. “Our churches, our community and my home are here, so I came back,” he continues.
Upon his return in 2017, Nidam recalls that “we could still hear the shots from the retreating Daesh in the distance.” “Frankly, we were very scared, the city was scary. It was a strange feeling, but we stayed and we did well,” he says. Within a few years, Qaraqosh came back to life. The shops have reopened, the children have gone back to school, but 43% of the city still needs to be rebuilt.
Agree to start over by going back
In the streets, next to the newly painted houses, there are also all those with black walls and broken windows, like the one of Nidam’s brother, who decided to go live abroad. “When we arrived, the houses and churches were destroyed, many things had disappeared. At the beginning it was very difficult to accept, so we had to control ourselves and start from scratch, “he explains.
To resettle, the inhabitants did not receive without help from the Iraqi government. However, foreign organizations are financing reconstruction programs. They also help some families restore their homes. Thanks to these programs, Ala was able to return in 2018 with his family. The 40-year-old father explains that after the euphoria of returning home, he had to face reality: no job, little money and a lot of sadness.
“We are not comfortable. Our life here depends a lot on the Iraqi government. If it is unstable, our situation will be too. To be honest, I’m afraid we are still forced to leave, to surrender.” everything, and do it again in a hurry. We just want to be sure that we can stay here and build our future there, that we can once again live in harmony with our Muslim neighbors, ”he says.
Mosul under reconstruction
Large-scale projects are also underway in Mosul, the country’s second largest city. Unesco Finance a vast project to rebuild mosques and churches destroyed by Daesh. Christian and Muslim engineers are working together to revive these centuries-old buildings, in the hope that Christians will return. Currently, only a few dozen families have resettled in Mosul. There were more than 2,000 before the arrival of the Islamic State.
For those who have not returned, the situations are very different. Some have gone abroad, others live elsewhere in Iraq, and many have also found refuge in nearby Iraqi Kurdistan, especially in its capital, Erbil. The lucky ones were able to start a new life and planned to stay there, but for others, the situation is much more precarious.
Balsam, for example, lives in a small one-bedroom apartment with her husband and two children. This mother of a family from a Christian village near Mosul saw all her relatives depart for Canada one after another. “My husband and I just hope we can get out of Iraq. Our children have no hope or future here and, above all, I don’t think the security situation will improve, so I prefer to leave,” she said. With no money and no job, the family finally decided to apply to immigrate to Canada. However, with the coronavirus, all cases are pending.
The Pope eagerly awaited by the Christian community
Despite all these difficulties, the Christians of Iraq are unanimous about the coming of the Pope: it is the ray of hope that they lacked. The Sovereign Pontiff will go to support the inhabitants of Qaraqosh, a very important symbol for Ala. “It is more than a message of peace. We are extremely happy with this coming. He comes to see us, here, it shows that we are not left out, that we count, that people are thinking of us,” he said.
“Our religion has its place here. We are a community and all of that is very important to us,” Ala continues. The father now awaits concrete actions from the Iraqi government so that he can be sure of his future and his security in Iraq.