A gathering of almost two thousand young Christians in Iraq provides hope for the future and encourages the new generations to stay and invest in their country and in their community. ACN helped make this project a reality.
Over 1800 young Christians from seven archdioceses and over 60 parishes gathered in Ankawa, in Iraq, from 29 June to 1 July. The Ankawa Youth Meeting (AYM) brought together young people and religious leaders from the Chaldean Catholic Church, the largest Christian Church in Iraq.
The youth festival staged near Erbil in the Kurdish north of Iraq, included Eucharistic celebrations, confession, retreats, seminars, debate, catechesis and other forms of Christian education. Erbil became a safe haven for thousands of Christians fleeing persecution almost a decade ago, when Islamic fundamentalists with the Islamic State occupied Mosul and overran dozens of Christian towns and villages in the Nineveh Plane.
“Christians in Iraq have been facing many challenges since ISIS and before. They look to the Church to guide them and help build their future through pastoral work and building structures: we now have six churches, a seminary, some catechist centres, four schools, a university, and a hospital”, said Archbishop Bashar Warda, of Erbil, in a message sent to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which is helping fund the gathering.
“The young are our future. Our mission is to give the youth hope and purpose in their lives in their homeland, nourishing their faith and providing them with skills that help them overcome the challenges they face”, the archbishop added.
“What we aspire to is a generation of conscious youth who will become part of the presence of the Church in Iraq. The Ankawa Youth Meeting is a big part of realizing this hope. It builds faith, friendships, removes isolation and impacts their lives and their families.”
Yara Khorany is one of the young participants in the AYM, and she sees this gathering as an opportunity to form future leaders. “We have all these young people, and they are all present here, these are the young Christian people of the region, we don’t want them to go away, we don’t want them to leave the country, we want them to be here and we want them to rebuild. Part of the mission is discovering new leaders, new potential, so that they can help the community to rebuild. The entire idea of these kinds of events is to show that we are a living church, and that we are here, and do not want to leave this place”, says the 23-year-old volunteer, who is part of the event’s media team.
Stopping the exodus
Christians have been leaving Iraq in droves over the past decades, threatening the very existence of the community in the region. Even though the situation at the moment is not as bad as it was when ISIS dominated a large area of the country, including the second largest city, Mosul, the Christian community still faces difficult situations, according to Yara Khorany. “There are still difficulties for Christians here, there is still some persecution because of religion. But it has become different in the sense that the Church is rebuilding, the Church is trying to discover more potential. There is this capacity of wanting and trying to build, so that we can recover as much as possible.”
Many of the young adults and youths present in the meeting in Ankawa were directly affected by the worst years of ISIS, but Yara Khorany says that this has not weakened their faith. On the contrary, “there has been this strong desire to stay and support the Church, so that Christianity will not vanish from the region. There have definitely been economic, social and other effects, but people are holding onto the Christian faith, and people are trying to really apply these Christian values in their lives.”
“We are a people of peace. Our message is that even though these hardships are things we have experienced, we still want to promote peace, we want to promote a culture of coexistence with all the other religions and groups in the country.”
Thanks to the Pope, and to ACN
Events such as the annual AYM play a very important role in sustaining the morale of young Christians. In recent years there have been other high points, especially the Pope’s visit to Iraq in 2021. “Sometimes when it is dark you need that light, and the Pope’s visit was like that, because it showed he is here, he cares, and he is encouraging us to live our faith, despite many hardships and difficulties. Some didn’t believe that it would actually happen. I was at the event, and some people were crying with joy because this visit was finally accomplished and the Pope was here. They were really moments of joy and hope.”
ACN has supported the Church in Iraq for many years, and is a major-partner in funding the AYM, covering over 70% of the total projected cost. Bishop Warda made a point of recognising this help in his message, saying that without it the gathering would not have taken place, and Yara Khorany confirms this. “We insist on wanting to stand on our own two feet, and we can only do that because of the help we are getting from ACN, so thank you very much for helping us rebuild”, she said.