By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
Pope Francis continued the third day of his Apostolic Journey to Iraq with a visit to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the northern Iraqi city of Qaraqosh.
In his Address to the faithful present, the Pope expressed gratitude to God for the opportunity of being among the faithful of Qaraqosh. He also acknowledged Patriarch Ignace Youssif Younan of Antioch for Syrian Catholics for his words of welcome.
“As I look out at you, I can see the cultural and religious diversity of the people of Qaraqosh, and this shows something of the beauty that this entire region holds out to the future,” the Pope said.
“Your presence here is a reminder that beauty is not monochrome, but shines forth in variety and difference.”
Qaraqosh, also known as Bakhdida in Aramaic, is home to the Immaculate Conception church. It is an Assyrian city located within the governorate of Nineveh, 32 kilometers southeast of Mosul and 60 kilometers west of Erbil. Predominantly inhabited by a Christian population, Qaraqosh was invaded in 2014 under the regime of the so-called Islamic state which left many dead, cause devastation to properties and forced thousands to flee for their lives. After the city’s liberation in 2016, support from the Church and the international community have helped in reconstruction efforts to encourage its population to return to their homes.
Also known as the “Al-Tahira” Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, built between 1932 and 1948, is the largest church in Qaraqosh. Unfortunately, in August 2014, the church was vandalized and burnt by militias of the IS and its premises was turned into a shooting range. However, it has since been restored to a sacred place.
The triumph of life over death
Recalling the difficult history of the region, the Holy Father noted the signs of the “destructive power of violence, hatred and war,” lamenting how much has been torn down and how much needs to be rebuilt. However, he pointed out that the gathering of the community shows that terrorism and death never have the last word.
“The last word belongs to God and to his Son, the conqueror of sin and death. Even amid the ravages of terrorism and war, we can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death,” the Pope affirmed.
He went on to remind the faithful of the example and legacy of their fathers and mothers in faith “who praised God in this place” and who persevered, trusting in God “who never disappoints and sustains us by his grace.”
“Embrace this legacy! It is your strength!” the Pope urged. “You are not alone! The entire Church is close to you, with prayers and concrete charity. And in this region, so many people opened their doors to you in time of need.”
Young and old called to restore and rebuild
Speaking further, Pope Francis impressed upon the faithful the importance of the present moment as the time to start afresh, relying on the grace of God who guides the destinies of all peoples.
“Dear friends, this is the time to restore not just buildings but also the bonds of community that unite communities and families, the young and the old together.”
Referring to the words of Prophet Joel who said “Your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (Joel 3:1), the Pope noted that when the young and old come together, the young can take the old dreams of the elderly, prophecy, and make them reality. In that way, we preserve and pass on the gifts that God gives and we know that children will inherit not only a land, culture and tradition, but also the living fruits of faith.
“So, I encourage you,” Pope Francis said: “do not forget who you are and where you come from! Do not forget the bonds that hold you together! Do not forget to preserve your roots!”
He added that even in difficult times, Jesus is by our side, including during the darkest days of the war and amid the ongoing global health emergency. He also pointed out the presence of many saints next door with whom the land is blessed, who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence.
The importance of forgiveness, gratitude
Pope Francis also acknowledged the testimonies of Mrs. Doha Sabah Abdalla who pardoned her son’s killers and Fr. Ammar Yako, a first-hand witness of the atrocities in the region.
Holding up Mrs. Doha’s words, Pope Francis reiterated her conviction that “forgiveness is needed on the part of those who survived the terrorist attacks.” This forgiveness, the Holy Father insists, is “necessary to remain in love, and to remain Christian.”
In this regard, he added that the ability to forgive and the courage not to give up is necessary on the road to recovery which may still be long but through in God and together with people of good will, we can say “no to terrorism and the manipulation of religion.”
Then, referring to Fr. Ammar’s witness, the Pope thanked the Lord who always filled him with joy in times both good and bad. He added that “gratitude is born and grows when we remember God’s gifts and promises,” and past memories shape the present and lead us to the future.
Appeal for prayers
Pope Francis enjoined all to pray for the “conversion of hearts and conversion of hearts and for the triumph of a culture of life, reconciliation and fraternal love between all men and women, with respect for differences and diverse religious traditions, in the effort to build a future of unity and cooperation between all people of good will.”
He also expressed his gratitude to all the mothers and women of the country “who continue to give life, in spite of wrongs and hurts” and urged that they be respected, protected and provided with opportunities.
“As I arrived on the helicopter, I saw the statue of Mary on this Church of Immaculate Conception,” Pope Francis remarked.
Concluding, the Holy Father invoked the intercession of Our Lady, noting that even though her image on the top of the Church of Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh has met with mistreatment and disrespect, the face of the Mother of God continues to look upon us with love “because that is what mothers do: they console, they comfort and they give life.”
At the end of his visit, Pope Francis signed the Book of Honor writing in it:
From this destroyed and rebuilt church, a symbol of hope for Qaraqosh and all of Iraq, I invoke from God, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the gift of peace.