BAGHDEDA (QARAQOSH), Iraq – On 7 June 2019, Mgr Nizar Semaan, who most recently served in the UK, was ordained Coadjutor Archbishop for the Syriac Catholic Church. He will serve alongside Mgr Petros Mouche and have jurisdiction over Mosul, Kirkuk, and Kurdistan. He was ordained in his hometown of Baghdeda, a mostly Christian town of 25,000. The largest city in his Archdiocese will be Mosul, the city where ISIS declared its caliphate in 2014.
The ceremony was held at the Church of the Immaculate in Qaraqosh (Baghdeda), one of Iraq’s largest churches. Although some structural work has been done with a grant of 100,000 EUR from Aid to the Church in Need, the church is still visibly burnt and damaged, a reminder of the so called Islamic State’s two-year occupation of the town. The previously whitewashed ceiling remains blackened, and a makeshift lighting system took the place of the church’s damaged chandeliers.
London priest ordained Archbishop in Iraqi hometown for Syriac Catholic Church.
His Beatitude Ignatius Joseph III Yonan, Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, celebrated the three-hour mass, which at various points employed Syriac, Arabic, and English. The primate leads the sui iuris Syriac Catholic Church, a continuation of the first-century Church of Antioch, where the Apostle Peter was first primate before moving to Rome. It has been in communion with Rome since 1782 after Metropolitan Michael Jarweh declared himself a Catholic. The primary liturgical language is Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.
At times wearing a white veil, Mgr Semaan thanked those in attendance and described how the Patriarch had called him at 8.00 AM on a Saturday with the proposal, giving him ten days to think about it. Mgr Semaan expressed his hopes for building a better city, but the ordination was bittersweet. Several women from his family wore black clothes and black veils to mark the recent death of Mgr Semaan’s father.
“It is God’s will, and I accept it as it is,” he said, speaking to ACN after the mass. “I will do my best, as the Cardinal says, to realize the will of God in my service. That is the only thing I am going to do.” He asked for well-wishers to “continue praying, and I promise to work hand-by-hand with them together for the good of this city and the diocese.”
The ceremony was held at the Church of the Immaculate in Qaraqosh (Baghdeda), one of Iraq’s largest churches.
In attendance were around 600 mostly Syriac Catholic worshippers, including a choir of 30, and representatives of several religious orders, as well as a few Chaldean and Orthodox bishops. There were, in addition, several civil and military officials. The event was protected by the Nineveh Protection Unit, which has successfully maintained the town’s security since its liberation from ISIS in 2016. The road outside was blockaded as a security measure, and during the ceremony, soldiers could be seen patrolling the church roof through its upper windows.
Mgr Semaan was first ordained a priest in Baghdeda in 1991 in the same church, but from 2005 was responsible for the Syriac Catholic faithful in London. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster in London, was unable to attend but passed on a message of support: “I greet all who are present in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Qaraqosh, which bears so movingly the marks of suffering and destruction of recent decades. I write to assure you all of my prayers and those of the Diocese of Westminster, and of all Catholics in England and Wales … He is known and loved by so many here in England.
“We will miss him greatly, for has been in our Church 14 years, winning our respect and affection.”
The leader of the Chaldean Church has called on the Iraqi government to put in place and enforce laws “that guarantee Christians and other religious minorities … full citizenship and freedom in practicing their faiths explicitly.” “The absence of serious steps” to protect the rights of minority faiths in the country, said Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako in a statement sent to Aid to the Church in Need, “will push the remaining Christians and minorities to choose emigration.”
Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako.
Christians and minorities “have played a significant role in enriching Iraq’s cultural, social and economic diversity, making valuable contributions to education, health, public administration and social services,” said the Cardinal; without them, Iraq would become “a country with one homogeneous fabric [that] could be isolated from the world and [which] may generate a kind of radicalism, [and] ethnic and sectarian fanaticism.”
Patriarch Sako listed a number of factors that are pushing Christians and other minorities toward leaving the country. These include the ongoing “fragility of the security situation” and Iraq’s “institutional weakness at the level of justice,” the state’s failure to protect non-Muslims from discrimination in the realms of “education, employment and social life,” as well as at the political level. Christians with outstanding professional qualifications, the cardinal charged, are denied positions only because of their faith. “Qualification and competence,” the cardinal insisted—and not an individual’s faith—should be the “measure for employment.”
Furthermore the patriarch noted that Christians are denied their rightful quota of five seats in the Iraqi Parliament. He also called for the application of “a civil law for all Iraqis,” rather than Christians and other religious minorities being “subjugated to [an] Islamic court, [with regard to] spiritual, religious matters, marriages, inheritance, etc.”
Patriarch Sako proposed a number of additional “practical measures” to fight the “injustice and discrimination” suffered by religious minorities. He called on the Iraqi leadership and “political ‘powers’” to combat “religious extremism that uses violence” and to take measures toward “disarming militias; providing security and stability; combating extremism, discrimination, terrorism and corruption.”
Chaldean Patriarch: ‘constant discrimination, uncertainty’ drive Christians out of Iraq.
The cardinal insisted that the Iraqi political leadership should promote “citizenship values” that support the common good by drawing on “principles of freedom, dignity, democracy, social justice and true relationship among all Iraqi citizens regardless of their religious, cultural and ethnic affiliations.” Such policies will bring about harmonious “coexistence with Muslims” for Iraqi’s religious minorities.
Finally, the Patriarch called for laws that help create “good conditions that guarantee Christians and other religious minorities … full citizenship and freedom in practicing their faiths explicitly; preserve their heritage, archeological and historical monuments as an integral part of Iraqi civilization, in order to enable them to continue their lives with dignity.”
Archbishop Petros Mouche heads the Syriac-Catholic Archdiocese of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which was captured by ISIS in the summer of 2014. Today, with ISIS ousted from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, Christian communities are slowly coming back to life. Thousands of Iraqi faithful, having spent upwards of three years in exile in Kurdistan, have resettled in their former homes, villages and towns. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Mouche—who also oversees the Syriac-Catholic Church in Kirkuk and Kurdistan—takes stock of the situation:
The positive change that has occurred in our region—no one can deny it. Things may not yet be at the required level, but there are very clear and concrete signs of progress. But no credit goes to the state: credit belongs to the faith-based and humanitarian organizations that rushed in to support us.
However, we still lack the funds to complete the reconstruction of all the homes that were very badly damaged or completely destroyed; we are waiting and hoping that governments, like those of the United Kingdom and Hungary, will step in and help us on this front.
Dinner before the Conference “Return to the roots: Christians in the Nineveh Plains” hosted by Aid to this Church in Need starts the next morning – Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche of Mosul in Iraq, „Casa dei Cavalieri di Rodi“.
As for the creation of jobs, there are very few initiatives; we have made many requests to several American, British, French and even Saudi Arabian companies to launch some major projects in the region, so that our people can survive and especially our young people can find work—but we are still waiting. The Iraqi government has made many promises, but few projects have been implemented. Our confidence in the state is low. We are convinced that, offered the right opportunities, many of our people would return to Qaraqosh—if they could live there in peace and stability.
The problems will not end as long as greed prevails; when only the strong prevail and the rights of the poor are crushed; as long as the state is still weak and the law is not applied. But our hope is in God and we pray that ISIS will never return. For their safety and overall well-being, Christians depend on the rule of law and the integrity of government—that is what can guarantee safety for us and the Church.
There is not one specific and well-known party with plans to attack Christians; however, whoever has ambitions to grab our land loses the sense of citizenship and does not respect the rights of others. Such parties don’t even feel comfortable with our survival and ongoing presence.
There are many goodwill visits by official delegations and many good words are spoken—but nothing happens. Good intentions are not enough. On the part of some, there is not sufficient respect for our rights; and Christians do not use violence to defend themselves, but appeal to mutual respect. But if that is not answered in kind, more and more Christians will emigrate. This hurts all of us, who love this land, our history, our civilization and our heritage.
Qaraqosh/Bakhdida – The situation in Iraq after Daesh, as it was one year ago in 2017.
The Church as a whole—its bishops, pastors and laity—is sparing no effort to claim the rights of its people and to secure an area where we can live in dignity and peace. Church leaders do their best to instill confidence and hope in our people, but without forcing anyone to return, stay or be displaced. That decision each family must make for itself, the decision that guarantees its dignity, its future, especially the future of the children.
Here is my message to the Christians who have left Qaraqosh, wherever they may be—still in Iraq, or whether they are already in foreign lands:
Qaraqosh is the mother who has fed you the love of God, the love of the Church and the love of the land; it will remain your mother despite her sadness at your absence; the city is your heart that is still attached to you and its eyes are watching all your steps. It is happy when you are happy, and it is worried about your destiny when you are not happy. Its doors remain open to you. At every moment Qaraqosh is ready to embrace you again—Qaraqosh asks that you remain faithful to the pure milk that it gave you!”
Since 2014, Aid to the Church in Need has been on the forefront of supporting Iraqi Christians with projects totaling more than $40M, including humanitarian aid for faithful who fled to Kurdistan to escape ISIS, the repair and rebuilding of Christian homes on the Nineveh Plains, and, currently, the reconstruction and repair of Church infrastructure in northern Iraq.
Thanks to a donation of 200,000 Euros from the Holy Father, following the auctioning of the Lamborghini that was given to him last year, ACN will be able to fund two new projects on behalf of the Iraqi Christian families and other minorities who have returned to their homes on the Nineveh Plains.
On 15 November 2017 the Holy Father decided to give ACN part of the proceeds from the auctioning of the Lamborghini Hurricane that had been donated to him by the famous Italian carmaker. Now ACN will give concrete form to the Pope’s gesture by funding the reconstruction of two buildings of the Syriac Catholic Church, destroyed by the war. They are the nursery school (kindergarten) of Our Lady and the multipurpose centre of the parish of the same name.
Both buildings are in the village of Bashiqa, just 30 km from Mosul. The village was badly damaged during the war, but the Christian community has returned, and in large numbers. In fact by now 405 of the 580 homes that were destroyed here have already been rebuilt and around 50% of the Christians, or 1,585 people, have already returned.
Totally destroyed multipurpose hall of St Mary, in the Syriac Catholic town of Bashiqa.
The two projects funded with the money from the Lamborghini will also benefit the other minorities in the town, since the multipurpose centre, which has capacity for over 1,000 people, will be used for weddings and the religious feasts of all the various different communities. It will be the largest such centre in the area and will be available for use to over 30,000 people of all different faiths and ethnic groups.
Just a little over two years since the liberation of the villages of the Nineveh Plains, the number of Christians who have been able to return to their homes has exceeded even the most optimistic predictions. By 11 January this year at least 9108 families had returned to their villages, or almost 46% of the 19,832 families dwelling there in 2014 prior to the arrival of so-called Islamic State. This is thanks above all to the immense work of reconstruction – to which ACN has greatly contributed – that has made it possible so far to rebuild or repair some 41% of the 14,035 homes destroyed or damaged by IS.
Partially destroyed Virgin Mary Kindergarten, in the Syriac Catholic town of Bashiqa.
This intervention, in which the pontifical foundation ACN has played a major role in collaboration with the local Churches, has also found a generous benefactor in the person of the Holy Father. Already back in 2016 Pope Francis gave 100,000 Euros in support of the “Saint Joseph Charity Clinic” in Erbil, which provides free medical assistance.
This most recent gift by the Holy Father will be a further help to local Christians, enabling them to live their own faith and offer a future in Iraq to their children. At the same time it is a powerful message and an invitation to peaceful coexistence between the different religions in a region where fundamentalism has sadly done grave damage to interreligious relations.
Since 2014 and up to the present day ACN has given over 14 million Euros for the support of Iraqi Christians.
“Please do not be a silent bystander to our drama. We call on you to support the Christians of Iraq… while there is still time.”
This was the urgent appeal underlying the joint Call for Action signed by the leaders of the three main Christian Churches in the Nineveh Plains region of Iraq and addressed to national governments and other international agencies.
“There is still a lot to do” to facilitate the return of Christians “to their respective ancestral communities from which they were expelled during the ISIS invasion of 2014-17.” So runs the statement signed by the senior representatives of the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church, together with other members of the Niniveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC) which was jointly formed between them for this purpose.
The Call for Action gives the following details of the progress of its work since its creation in 2017: Out of the 13,904 houses registered as in need of renovation, fewer than half, 5,746 have now been renovated while a further 84 are currently undergoing renovation. Only 45.68% of the families who were forced to flee the Nineveh Plains region in 2014 – that is to say 9,060 families – have so far returned.
Iraq: Christian leaders call for more support for the Christians of Nineveh
The gist of the statement by the NRC is that the process of reconstruction of these homes has slowed down in the last few months of 2018, for lack of financial support: hence the urgency of their appeal. “Another 2,000 families are eager to return, but have no means to do so”, they state. They underline the fact that the return of these Christians to their former homes “is a matter of great urgency, since the window of time for returning safely is closing. If they do not return now to repossess their homes, others will occupy them. Moreover, the Iraqi government is not inclined to protect empty houses”, the Call to Action concludes.
What these religious leaders are calling upon the international community to help for is “not simply to give people back their homes, but rather a more integral project” which aims “also to restore their sense of human dignity”. They emphasize the essential need for coordinated financial aid, especially in the field of education, to address “the critical situation of trauma”, and “for the creation of economic stability by boosting small businesses through the development of micro-projects and loans” in order to prevent these communities falling into poverty and deciding to emigrate as a result. Equally necessary, they insist, are measures for the “legal protection of Christians and other minorities and their fundamental rights, especially of citizenship”.
The Church leaders also expressed their appreciation for the important role played by the NRC, a committee established with the support of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) to jointly oversee the reconstruction programme and the allocation of the financial resources received. Thanks to the NRC, they say, the Christians “instead of being scattered and isolated” have managed to “regain their community life”. They also note that in this region, where “the voice and role of the local Church leaders is stronger than in other regions of Iraq” it is “very important that the various local Churches work closely together, united in diversity”, and add that this ecumenical cooperation has “inspired a great solidarity among the people”.
Iraq: Christian leaders call for more support for the Christians of Nineveh
Nonetheless, they point out at the same time that the pressure on the Churches is “enormous” because “people think that the Church can handle it all easily enough”. That is why “we still need a lot of help”, they conclude.
Following the liberation of Mosul and the towns and villages of the Nineveh Plains, ACN came up with the idea for a sort of “Marshall plan” – a reconstruction programme for the region, designed to give hope to the uprooted Christian refugees here and encourage them to return to their homes. ACN dedicated around 7 million $ for reconstruction programme oh privat houses.
Since September 2018 ACN has also been outlining a programme of financial aid for the reconstruction of the churches and other ecclesiastical structures in the area.
Another priority of ACN’s work is the coordination of initiatives aimed at alerting politicians and international bodies to the need for a long-term development programme for the Christians of the Middle East. And the hard work and commitment of the charity has borne good fruits, among other things in the recent announcement of aid programmes by the German and Austrian governments for the reconstruction of the area. And more recently also by the signing of a new measure on the part of the US government for the allocation of aid to the victims of the genocide in Iraq and Syria.
How young Christian parents found a house for themselves and their newborn child thanks to Aid to the Church in Need
For some Christians in Iraq, the future is just a few weeks old. Baby Timotheus was born in mid-May. “It is my heartfelt wish that my son will be able to grow up in Iraq. God will find a way,” his father Samir hopes. He and his wife Siba are proud parents – and devout Christians. Their baby will be baptised in just a few weeks. The young people – he is 30, she 25 – live in Bartella, a Christian town on the Nineveh plains near Mosul. The majority of its inhabitants are Syriac Orthodox.
Their small son lies quietly in the arms of his mother. His parents will later tell him about the difficult times the family went through in the years leading up to his birth. The Islamic State arrived in Bartella in August of 2014. All of the Christians living in the town fled in panic from the Islamic extremists. Their churches and houses were destroyed, damaged, and almost all of them were looted. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is making it possible for Christians to return to the places they call home. A large project has been called into being to restore the houses made uninhabitable by IS. This has paved the way for more than 45 per cent of families displaced in 2014 to return to their homes, a total of more than 8700 families as at June 2018.
The house Timotheus is spending the first year of his life in is not owned by his family. “The house does not belong to us. The owner lives in Sweden. However, thanks to ACN, we are living in this house for one year for free,” Samir explains. This has been a big help to the young family. “May God bless the benefactors and support them in every stage of their lives. They live by the words of Jesus: I was homeless and you welcomed me.” This is possible because the reconstruction committee, which is sponsored by ACN, has stipulated that assistance will only be granted for the renovation of houses destroyed or damaged by IS if owners who do not live in their houses themselves allow a needy family to live in them for one year for free. Samir and his family are the beneficiaries of this requirement. However, in November it will have been a year since Timotheus’ parents returned to Bartella and they will have to start paying rent as of then. But Samir is still looking towards the future optimistically. “I live from day to day, just as Jesus taught us. May God give us our daily bread.” Samir earns his family’s daily bread as an English teacher. “I prepare students for university.” He primarily teaches non-Christian children of the Shabak peoples, an ethnic group that follows Shia Islam. Muslims are a growing part of the population of Bartella because many Christians are selling their land to them before leaving for other countries. This worries Samir. Samir also earned his living as an English teacher when he lived in Iraqi Kurdistan as a refugee. Most of the Christians had fled to safety there. “The years as a refugee were of course difficult. We hardly had any money. We would not have made it without the support of the Church.” Despite everything, though, leaving Iraq has never been an option for Samir. “Without a doubt: we live in an unstable country. However, it is still our homeland. As long as nothing absolutely terrible happens, I want to remain here.” His wife Siba agrees with him. “I love my homeland. The support of my Lord and my husband give me the strength to endure all hardships.”
Christians reconstructing their houses in Qaraqosh damaged by ISIS
Samir is happy that things are improving again in the town. “Most people have gone back to their normal lives. Things have returned to the way they used to be.” In fact, the sound of hammering and renovations can be heard all over town, as people repair the damage left behind by IS. However, in the Syriac Orthodox parish church in Bartella, not all traces have been removed. Father Jacob, the priest, leads the way through the church. It has been renovated using monies granted by ACN. The walls are radiantly white. The painted wooden altar gleams in vibrant colours. The anti-Christian graffiti and the Islamic creed that the IS terrorists wrote on the walls have been whitewashed. Only a charred chapel has been left as a reminder of IS. “We left the chapel like this on purpose. It is supposed to act as a reminder of the awful things that happened to us. However, thanks to God’s help and the generosity of the benefactors of ACN, we have come back.”
A mother with her son. Iraq