In the city of Qaraqosh, Iraq, the bells of the largest Christian Church in the Middle East toll again. In a city situated in the Nineveh plains, Iraqi Christians who trace the roots of their faith back almost to the dawn of Christianity itself regain hope after the devastation caused by ISIS.
For a young couple Ehab and Athraa, now living in Warragul, in the state of Victoria, Australia with their two young children, the town of Qaraqosh, their Churches and its vibrancy has been in their hearts ever since they fled in August 2014 when ISIS destroyed each and every house and Church in their town. The memory of the beautiful vibrancy of their seven churches, including St Mary Al-Tahira Al-Kubra Church (Immaculate Conception), a Syriac Catholic Church packed with worshippers and church bells ringing, has sustained them in their exile and search for safety, now in their new home and new beginnings.
I met them after Mass in Warragul as they told me that they were so excited to see their Church featured on Aid to the Church in Need’s banner and brochures. They were baptised, received their first Holy Communion and married there and they knew the priest featured. They carry so many memories but little in terms of photographs and belongings as they fled with just their clothes on their back. Everything was destroyed by ISIS.
The couple whose first language is Aramaic-Syriac (the language of Christ), speaking in English (their third language) explained:
“We didn’t expect what happened would happen. We thought that this was something confined to the history books when in earlier generations the Turkish Ottomans invaded that part of Iraq (then part of Persia)”, elaborated Ehab.
“The morning before ISIS arrived, the Church bells tolled to warn the residents of imminent danger and because it was so unusual to hear this, it was a signal for the residents to flee. Indeed ISIS bombed and burned each and every home and Church those few days and used the Immaculate Conception Church as target practice for their fighters.”
“I had just completed building our brand new family house belonging to my parents, my siblings and ourselves, which took us eight years. It was all burned to the ground in an instant. It was hard to take”.
“Whether you were a rich person or a poor person, everyone was equal in terms of what they had. They fled with the clothes on their backs and no money. Iraq is a country that at that time was a cash economy, so people didn’t carry electronic bank accounts or details. All of them were happy to lose everything to keep their faith. There is a happiness despite not having anything else.”
Image: All that was left belonging to the couple after ISIS destroyed Qaraqosh– a damaged calculator, a pen, two photographs of Athraa’s First Holy Communion at the Immaculate Conception Church.
Ehab, Athraa and their daughter fled to Ankawa, northern Iraq with three other people in a small sedan car. Then two years later, they went to Jordan. The war continued to drag on and they started to lose hope. Ehab although educated with a Masters degree from a University in the United States, was not allowed to work in his profession but rather worked on a minimum wage as a baker doing 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week for 8 straight months. There was no break.
“I left because of my faith, yet I could not have the opportunity to go to Mass in those 8 months because I had to work. Then a charity offered us $100 a month for ten months. I cannot tell you how much that meant for us. It meant I could take a day off from work. I could go to Mass. It meant we could refresh. Don’t underestimate how much a donation means to those who receive it. It gives them relief – even if you consider that your donation is small. That is why I am happy to make a monthly donation myself to Aid to the Church in Need”.
After three years in Jordan, Ehab, Athraa and their daughter arrived in Australia via the UN Refugee Special Humanitarian Visa. They chose to live in Warragul to be near Ehab’s brother-in-law who had also applied three years earlier and been granted a position as a doctor in the local hospital. Ehab was given practical support to apply for work and within three months, obtained a job in his chosen field in Gippsland.
Ten months ago, they purchased their own home in Warragul and their son was born there.
“God always has a good plan. He carries you through your suffering as people around touch you through their encounter. God had a good plan in bringing us to Australia so that we may say that special word of encouragement to someone else that may change that person’s life.”
The destruction of their home and town by ISIS was a huge impact on their lives. It has made them stronger.
After ISIS was expelled, half of the 65,000 population returned. The Bishop asked for donations to first help rebuild the houses. The people attended Masses in the rubble of their Churches. Finally, when all the houses were rebuilt, the churches were rebuilt. The church of the Immaculate Conception, with its marble floors and internal columns was reconstructed using funds from Aid to the Church in Need.
Reconstruction symbolises a return to hope. When Pope Francis visited in 2021, he told the Congregation “The entire Church is close to you with prayers and concrete charity.”
The bells toll again in the town of Qaraqosh inviting residents to Mass.
If you would like to make an offering to ACN you can do so here.
- By Angela Lecomber
Featured Image: Main Image: Ehab and Athraa's family today.