Nearly a month ago, the Christians of the Nineveh Plain recalled a tragic event: the invasion by the Islamic State (IS) group six years earlier. Fortunately, there is hope with the reconstruction of a legendary church in the region.
On August 6, 2014, IS fighters conquered and razed the Christian settlements of the Nineveh Plain, north and east of Mosul. Some 120,000 Christians had to flee overnight. Qaraqosh, also known as Baghdeda, is approximately 30 km east of Mosul. It was the largest Christian city in Iraq. After Iraqi forces and their allies recaptured the territories in October 2016, tens of thousands of displaced Christians returned to the ruins of their hometowns. According to the latest data published by the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC), almost 50% of the 11,111 Christian families living in Qaraqosh prior to the IS invasion have returned.
A restoration that has become a symbol of hope
On the sixth anniversary of this “dark night” for Iraqi Christianity there are glimmers of hope. Undeniably, one beacon of hope is the ongoing restoration work of the Great Al-Tahira Syrian-Catholic Church (Church of the Immaculate Conception), supported by Aid to the Church in Need, one of the major partners for the building and reconstruction programs of the Christian communities of the Nineveh Plains.
“This church is one of the most important centres of the Catholic Church. The IS attack on the city caused a lot of destruction and devastation; the church was severely damaged, burned and valuables and furniture were looted. The Church’s clock tower was dynamited and numerous paintings and religious objects were severely damaged” explains Father Ammar Yako, who oversees the restoration work of Al-Tahira.
The courtyard of the church contained a replica of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. During the IS occupation from August 2014 to October 2016, it was used as a firing range. Bullet holes can still be seen in the walls. In 2016, when the terrorist group fled, manuscripts and the remaining prayer books were burnt inside the Church.
“The furniture of the church was very valuable, 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 famous, priceless painting of the Virgin Mary was completely burned and destroyed. Missile attacks, sabotage operations, and even weather conditions all helped to destroy the church.”
Father Yako explains the deep meaning behind the work: “The reconstruction of the Great Al-Tahira Church is encouraging Christians to stay here—the church, consecrated 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 their fathers and grandfathers. Every Christian here feels that the church is part of their blood, their history and their heritage” said Father Yako. In fact, farmers donated part of their harvest each year to make the construction, which took place between 1932 and 1948, possible.
“Many Christians felt frustrated and hurt when, upon their return from exile in Kurdistan, they saw their church destroyed and burned. When reconstruction work began, they found hope that they would worship in the church again—that its sanctity and beauty would once again enhance community life.”
ACN is co- financing the restoration of Al-Tahira Church, the largest Syriac-Catholic Church in the Middle East. It is important not only because of its historical significance – in the basement are the remains of the former church – but also because of its distinctive design and artistic value: its roof rests on 22 one-piece marble pillars from Mosul. They were one of the jewels of the church and were damaged by external and internal cracks due to the fire inside the church and the bombing of the tower; the arches and the columns adjacent to the altar also needed to be repaired. In 2018 the building had to be closed for prayers and religious celebrations because of risks to the safety of the faithful.
“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 historical and sacred value of the church. This is where major ceremonies and official events take place.”
Named in honour of the Immaculate Conception, defined as dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854, the Al-Tahira Church wishes to remain consecrated to Our Lady: “We aim to create a panorama of the life of the Virgin Mary in the outer corridors, introducing visitors to the life of the saint. In a separate hall, we hope to collect and display damaged parts of the church—religious items, paintings and other objects, including parts of the wall bearing ISIS slogans. The world will thus have evidence of what terrorism has inflicted on us all. To the benefactors of 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 doors 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!”