Iraq: a beacon of hope for Christians of Qaraqosh on the Nineveh Plains

ON AUGUST 6, 2014, ISIS swept across the Nineveh Plains, north and east of Mosul. Some 120,000 Christians had to flee overnight. Qaraqosh, 20 miles east of Mosul, was the largest Christian city in Iraq. After Iraqi forces and their allies were able to recover the territories in October 2016 tens of thousands of displaced Christians returned to the ruins of their home cities. According to the latest data published by the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC) almost half of the 11,111 Christians families who fled have returned to Qaraqosh.

On the sixth anniversary of this dark night for Iraqi Christianity, one beacon of hope is the ongoing work on the restoration of the Great Al-Tahira Syrian-Catholic Church, the Church of the Immaculate Conception. The project is supported in part by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), one of the major partners for the building and reconstruction programs benefitting Christian communities on the Nineveh Plains. ACN spoke with Father Ammar Yako, who oversees work on Al-Tahira.

“This church is one of the most important centers of the Syriac-Catholic Church. The ISIS attack on the city caused a lot of destruction and devastation; the church was severely damaged, burned down, with valuables and furniture looted. The Church’s clock tower was dynamited, with the clock itself lost, and numerous paintings and religious objects were severely damaged,” said Father Yako.

Interior of Al-Tahira
Interior of Al-Tahira

The Church’s courtyard contained a replica of the grotto of Lourdes. During the ISIS occupation from August 2014 to October 2016, it was used as a firing range. Bullet holes pockmark the walls. In 2016, when ISIS fled, manuscripts and prayer books were burned inside the church.

“The furniture of the church was very valuable,” continued Father Yako, “as was a cross of pure silver that, it is believed, contained a piece of the real cross; it may have been stolen by the terrorists; a celebrated, invaluable painting of the Virgin Mary was completely burned and destroyed. Missile attacks, sabotage operations, and even weather conditions all conspired to help destroy the church.

“The reconstruction of the Great Tahira Church is encouraging Christians to stay here. The church, dedicated in 1947, was built right next to the site of an ancient Syriac-Catholic Church that carried the same name. It is the fruit of the work and contributions of people’s fathers and grandfathers. Every Christian here feels that the church is part of their blood, their history and their heritage.” In fact, farmers donated each year from their harvest to make its construction possible.

“Many Christians felt frustrated and hurt when, upon their return from exile in Kurdistan, they saw their church destroyed and burned. When work began, they found hope that they would worship in the church again—that its sanctity and beauty would enhance community life again,” Father Yako said.

Al-Tahira Church is the largest Syriac-Catholic Church in the Middle East. It is important because of its historical significance; below the church in the underground are the remains of the former church. Then there is its notable design and artistic value: its roof rests on 22 one-piece marble pillars. They were among the jewels of the church and they were damaged by external and internal cracks due to the fire inside the church and the bombing of the tower; in addition the arches and columns adjacent to the altar needed repair. In 2018, the building had to be closed because of risks to people’s safety.

“The reconstruction project is also very important in that it is at Al-Tahira that the local Church welcomes visiting dignitaries and delegations. It is the first stop for all important visitors because of the church’s historical and sacred value. It is where major ceremonies and official events take place,” explained Father Yako.

Fatber Yako
Father Yako

Named in honor of the Immaculate Conception, the Al-Tahira Church will enhance its devotion to Our Lady:  “We aim to create a panorama of the life of St. Mary the Virgin in the outer corridors, introducing visitors to the life of the saint. In a separate hall, we hope to collect examples of damage done to of the church—damaged religious items, paintings and other objects, as well as parts of the wall carrying ISIS slogans. Thus may the world have evidence of what terrorism has inflicted on us all,” said the priest.

To the benefactors for ACN Father Yako said: “Though delayed by the coronavirus, work is continuing on the columns of the church, the roof and the dome and next will come the work on the outer porches and later the tower. We are also rebuilding the altar. We thank all those who are contributing to the restoration of Al-Tahira. May its walls soon reverberate with prayers of the faithful!”

—Ragheb Elias Shaba & Maria Lozano