Having a long experience of persecution, the Christians of Baghdeda (Qaraqosh) know that bad times could return, but they believe that “a Church which is not persecuted is a Church which does not carry Christ.”
It is a beautiful day in Baghdeda, and families are flocking to the Church of St. Behnam and St. Sarah. The interior of the church is immaculate and the pews are crowded with faithful who have come to attend the Syro-Catholic liturgy.
The surrounding tranquility makes it hard to imagine that just eight years ago Baghdeda was fully occupied by Islamic State terrorists who destroyed the precious and ancient Christian heritage, and burned and emptied St. Behnam’s.
“When I visited the city, four days after its liberation in 2016, it was absolute devastation, the church had been burned, the steeple toppled. However, the church was still standing and we were able to restore it,” explains Fr. George Jahola, originally from Baghdeda.
In recent years, the church has undergone a restoration. The interior work was recently completed, and with the financial assistance of the Pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need, work has finally begun on the exterior.
However, the people of Qaraqosh did not wait for the full restoration to start praying in this church as they returned from their exile in Kurdistan. “After two years, we decided it was time to restore the church, to give people hope,” says Fr. George.
A symbol and a witness
Hope is needed, even after the city's liberation, when many are still tempted to seek safer lands to the west. “The restoration of this church is a symbol of resistance, of staying on this land, of witness,” explains the priest.
The local parish priest, Fr. Boutros Sheeto, confirms that the restoration of the church has become a visible sign of the larger struggle to keep the Christian faith alive in Iraq. “The restoration of the church gives the community psychological and moral strength. Without this reconstruction, many families today would consider emigrating.”
The fact that many Christians have decided to stay does not mean that they do not fear the return of persecution. Instead, many see it as part of their faith.
“From its foundation, and to this day, the Church has been persecuted. A Church that is not persecuted is a Church that does not bear Christ, because Jesus was crucified and suffered during His life and mission. If Jesus suffered, died, was buried, and rose again, we must suffer with Jesus and suffer with the Church,” adds Fr. Boutros.
As ancient Syriac hymns once again resound in the beautifully restored church, this day is a day of thanksgiving to God and gratitude to those who made the restoration possible.
The ACN has been very active in helping to restore Christian heritage and infrastructure in Iraq, especially since the terrible persecutions committed by the Islamic State which forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee to Kurdistan.
After focusing on rebuilding homes in Christian towns and villages, the Catholic charity has helped restore and build schools, churches and other crucial institutions to help maintain a Christian presence in the region.