Waiting for Pope Francis
Article, photographs and videos by Fausto Biloslavo
Among The Christians of Iraq
This report was made possible thanks to the support of Aid to the Church in Need
QARAQOSH –“The Islamic State terrorists beheaded the statue of the Virgin Mary and cut off her hands. It will be brought before the Pope dueing the great mass in Erbil stadium. We are restoring it, but we want to keep the signs of the crime against a sacred symbol for Christians.” Malik Kadifa, 49, comes from an Armenian family who suffered the Turkish genocide. In 2014, when the Islamic State brutally occupied Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, the heart of the Christian community in Iraq, he fled to Erbil, the “capital” of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The burly engineer has the task of repairing the statue, which comes from the proud Christian village of Karemlash. Here the Caliphate’s cutthroats defaced the symbols of the “infidels”, even breaking open tombs to plunder anything of value. “I am a Christian and I am convinced that we must not leave the Middle East, the land of our fathers,” stresses Kadifa in a sad voice, the tone of one who still feels persecuted today.
Between 5 and 8 March Francis will make the first historic trip by a Pope to Iraq, the cradle of civilisation and Christianity. It will be an unprecedented event in the churches of Baghdad, repeatedly attacked by terrorists. Here the Pope will meet the Grand Ayatollah, Ali Al Sistani, the “saint” in the land of the Iraqi Shiites, who represent the majority of the population. The visit to Ur, the native city of Abraham, will be of great symbolic value, as will the visit to Mosul amid the rubble of the great battle that freed the “capital” of the Caliphate. And then on to Qaraqosh, where the cathedral burnt by the black flags, was recently restored to welcome the Pope. And finally the great gathering of 10,000 Christians in Erbil stadium.
“30,000 would have come, but due to Covid restrictions we’ve had to limit attendance,” explains Monsignor Bashar Matti Warda, archbishop of the Kurdish “capital”. He was the first to call for the arrival of the Holy Father in 2017 during the battle that raged on the Nineveh Plains and in Mosul. “Some fundamentalists are hostile to the Pope’s visit. They’re claiming on social media that the ‘king’ of the crusaders is coming,” explains Warda, “but we’re not afraid of threats. The government and most Iraqis see Pope Francis’s visit favourably.”
On the footbridge at the entrance to the village of Karemlash, north of Mosul, the yellow and white Vatican flags fly together with those of Iraq. Two large photos of Pope Francis rise above the street bearing the word “welcome”. Christians in arms of the Nineveh Protection Units guard the small town and patrol the entrances. With weapons, camouflage jackets and special corps equipment, the some 500-600 men were trained by the Americans and answer to Baghdad in the chain of command.
Father Paolo guides us through the rubble of Karemlash, recently liberated from Islamic State. The church is as good as new, but the bell tower still bears the marks of the explosions and the cross is bent in half. “We decided to leave it like this to bear witness and not forget what the Christian community has suffered,” the priest explains in perfect Italian.
The tolling of the bell which has remained intact calls the faithful to prayer. Inside the church a nun plays the organ, accompanying the choir of young Christian girls wearing a light white lace veil over her head. This is the same choir that will sing for the Pope amid the rubble of Mosul.
At sunset, among the houses of a still ravaged area of Karemlash, a middle-aged woman walks around. She is fiercely outspoken: “It has been left like this since the war. Corruption is rampant and the government does nothing to help us.”
Qaraqosh is the heart of Christianity in the Nineveh Plains. The church of the Immaculate Conception is over a thousand years old. Outside, a photo of Pope Francis rises above the arches devastated by the bullets fired by terrorists, who used the square as a shooting range. The church is packed with worshipers for the first Sunday mass at 7 a.m. The ancient vaults, the clouds of incense, the priest wearing the robes of the past, the marks made by bursts of machine-gun fire, the portraits of Jesus and the saints, all remind us of the faith of the Christians in the catacombs. The faithful elder who can barely stand upright, the brave women telling their beads, the children with lighted candles at the side of the altar and the ringing “amen” that echoes when the faithful make the sign of the cross all heighten the sense of expectancy for the Pope’s visit.
“The Holy Father’s visit will give us strength,” Father Ammar explains. “Our biggest problem is the exodus, the flight abroad. There are 300,000 of us left in Iraq (from over 1 million in Saddam’s time ed note). The fear of violence, the economic crisis and corruption are forcing our brothers to emigrate. I fear that there is a plan to empty the Middle East of Christians.”
50,000 Christians lived in Qaraqosh before ISIS. Some 20,000 fled mainly to Lebanon and Jordan to try to reach Europe or the United States. Of the others, 90% have returned and are rebuilding their destroyed or looted homes, but there is no work and their safety is always uncertain. 45.53% of the Christians have returned to the Nineveh Plains. The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need has invested almost 50 million euros, particularly in rebuilding their homes. Occupation by the Caliphate destroyed or damaged 369 churches and 14,035 Christian homes in the Nineveh Plains alone.
Father Ammar accompanies us to the cathedral, the largest in Iraq, which ISIS set fire to. Here the Pope will recite the Angelus. The massive columns blackened by fire have now been restored to their pristine gleaming white. “The Pope will sit in this spot in front of the altar, which we have left blackened by the fire,” explains Ammar. The priest, together with a Christian woman from Qaraqosh whose young son was killed by Islamic State terrorists, will tell the Pope of the sufferings of Christians in the Middle East. Outside, people are busy paving the road that will lead Francis to the entrance to the cathedral.
And when he crosses the threshold he will find himself faced with a kind of “museum”, tangible proof of the persecution of Christians. A blow from a scimitar split the head of a statue of St. Joseph in two. Father Ammar almost weeps over a little headless baby Jesus beheaded by Isis. The Islamic cutthroats scarred sacred portraits, burned books of the Christian faith, and vented their fury on an ancient wooden cross, breaking it in two. Over 120,000 Christians fled within a few days, in August 2014, in the face of the terrible advance of the black flags of ISIS.
Today the new threat casti g its shadow over the Christian presence is that of the Shabak, the Shiite ethnic group of the Nineveh Plains. They are seeking to expand by buying or conquering lands with the support of the militias. On the main street of the Christian town of Bartella, a photo of the Iranian Pasdaran general, Qassim Suleimani killed in January last year by an American drone in Baghdad, is posted on every lamp post.
At a checkpoint held by Christian Protection Forces, Andrios Ghiwardes, wearing a flak jacket, checks the road from behind a heavy machine gun mounted on a semi-armoured vehicle. “I decided to return from New Zealand. This is my land,” the Assyrian fighter explains in perfect English. “I’m happy about the Pope’s visit, but the problems remain.