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Pope will pay a visit to an Iraqi church that has been destroyed by IS militants.

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Pope will pay a visit to an Iraqi church that has been destroyed by IS militants.

 

The Rev. Ammar Altony Yako remembers the scenes vividly: a church that had been the pride of the town of Qaraqosh, a hub for Christian life in Iraq, for decades stood badly scarred.

When Qaraqosh was freed from the Islamic State group after more than two years of rule, Yako witnessed it. The proclamation that the “Islamic State would remain” was scrawled on a wall. Bullet-riddled mannequins and other telltale signs of a militants’ improvised firing range for target practice were strewn among the rubble in a courtyard.

On Sunday, the world will see a new scene at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, and new memories will be made. Pope Francis will now pray where extremists once wreaked havoc.

“I never could have expected, except in my dreams, that his holiness, the Pope, would visit this church,” said Yako, who has been overseeing the church’s reconstruction. “It’s a completely unexpected and very happy event.”

It’s also one with a lot of symbolism.

The pope’s historic journey, which comes amid a pandemic and security threats, will take him to Christian communities like Yako’s, which were devastated by the IS onslaught in 2014. As militants swept through northern Iraq, Christians in the region were forced to flee their ancestral towns and villages. Many have since left Iraq, sparking existential fears about the country’s already declining Christian population.

Many Christians hope that the pope’s visit will bring attention to their plight and send a message of hope, but they also point to protection, economic, and social issues that are preventing many Christians from returning.

Even now, some returnees are torn between two options: stay and help keep ancient cultures alive, or go abroad for a better life if they can?

IS wreaked havoc on religious and historic sites of all sorts, including mosques, tombs, shrines, and churches. The militant group vandalized or demolished everything it deemed to be in violation of its understanding of Islam.

For Christians, the Islamic State’s reign has dealt a blow to a population that has been dwindling since the security collapse and rise of militancy that followed the US-led war in Iraq in 2003 prompted many to flee. Iraqi Christians belong to a variety of denominations, including Chaldean, Syriac, Assyrian, and others, and their faith dates back almost to the beginning of the religion itself.

The Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh — “al-Tahira al-Kubra” in Arabic — has become a symbol of the community’s setbacks and, more recently, of its attempts to recover.

Walls in the church were found charred, crosses were destroyed, prayer books were burned, and the tower was damaged after the area was taken back from IS, according to Yako.

“Seeing the church where we worshipped and that we saw as part of our past look like that was so painful,” he said. “At the same time, we were relieved that we would be able to return and see it again.”

According to Yako, scars were removed as reconstruction took place with the support of foreign Christian organizations. Some, such as the pockmarked walls in the courtyard, were held to bear witness to the IS period.

Between 1932 and 1948, the church was built. Farmers in the area set aside money from their harvest, and women donated gold jewelry to help fund it, according to Yako.

“Its creation was entirely dependent on volunteers and donations. They were constructing the house of God in the same way as people build their own homes,” he explained. “We refer to it as the’mother church.’ This church is like a mother to everyone.”

Local artists and others have recently helped to spruce up the church.

One artist painted scenes from the Way of the Cross on 14 church windows, evoking Jesus’ agony on his way to be crucified.

Sculptor Thabet Mekhael produced a statue of Virgin Mary with her palms open and a crown on her head. The statue, which stands about 4 meters (13 feet) tall and is flanked by four crosses, now stands atop the church’s tower, looking out over Qaraqosh.

“The statue is a sign of our existence as Christians and a symbol of our return,” Mekhael said. “We reconstructed the tower and made it much more beautiful than before.”

Sister Hayat Alkasmosa of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, Iraq, was one of a group of volunteers sweeping and mopping the church floor on a recent day.

“This church is like the beating heart of the community,” she said over the phone. “It’s our mother, our heritage, and our life.”

Alkasmosa’s voice broke up with tears when she remembered weeping as she found out the pope would be visiting Qaraqosh, also known as Bakhdida or Baghdeda.

She said, “There is a need for this kind of peace and consolation.” “It is healing to be in his presence.”

She believes Francis’ visit to the church would send a powerful message:

She said, “Darkness cannot prevail, and evil cannot win.” “The last word does not refer to death; it refers to life.”

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