Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq has given fresh impetus this Easter to a movement of Iraqi Christians returning to their homeland after fleeing genocide at the hands of Daesh (ISIS).
One month on from the papal visit, which took in Baghdad, Mosul, Ur and Erbil, Christians in the mainly Syriac Catholic town of Qaraqosh (Baghdeda) have reported that the euphoria of the pope’s visit has caused people to consider a return.
Speaking to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Revan Possa, 30, from the Qaraqosh reconstruction board, said: “We have heard about families from Qaraqosh who cried when they saw photos of the trip and are thinking about returning home.
“We need safety and support from the West to stay here. I like this land and I want to stay here.”
Qaraqosh, in the Nineveh Plains, is Iraq’s largest Catholic town, 20 minutes from Mosul, and had a population of 55,000 before it was occupied by Daesh for two years.
According to Father Ammar Yako, who runs a centre for displaced families, today already 23,000 Christians have returned.
Joseph Guiliana, 44, a teacher and author who returned to Qaraqosh after life as a refugee in France, said the papal visit reminded Iraqi Christians they have a right to live there.
He said: “We needed this visit to fill us with the hope that we have the right to stay here as the original people of this land.
“For Christians here, as well as those living as refugees in Europe and America, we all think that this visit gives them hope of life for Christians in Iraq. I am one of them.
“With the Pope’s visit, we feel that we are not alone. We feel that we are safe because someone cares about us.”
Father Araam Romel Qia, 40, a Chaldean Catholic priest in Batnaya, has warned that Christian persecution won’t be stopped without Western support.
He said: “The suffering of Christians continues, as long as there is an Islamic constitution that does not protect the rights of Christians and other minorities.
“The persecution of Christians and minorities will continue as long as there are militias and a weak government. We hope for continued support from the international community.”
Iraq is a priority country for ACN, with the charity providing help such as emergency aid, repairs to houses and church buildings, and medical assistance and other urgent support during the COVID-19 pandemic.