Father Ammar Yako: “It is part of our history.”
Al-Tahira Church in Qaraqosh (Baghdeda) was almost completely destroyed during the ISIS terror regime (2014–2017). Thanks to the generous support of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) benefactors, the church has been rebuilt over the course of the last few years and is now almost fully restored. Pope Francis has confirmed that he will visit the Marian basilica on Sunday, March 7, during his visit to the country. Fr Ammar Yako is overseeing the reconstruction.
ACN: What is the history of the church of Al-Tahira?
Father Yako: The construction of Al-Tahira Church in Qaraqosh began in 1932. The entire population of Qaraqosh helped in the work and contributed voluntarily to its construction, which was completed in 1948, when the church was inaugurated. It was a good way for people to show their faith. We know many stories about the time of the construction of the church from our parents and grandparents. Thanks to their hard work this great church was erected.
What did the church look like after the ISIS invasion and destruction?
As you know, in 2014 ISIS conquered the city and we fled to Kurdistan. After three years the city was liberated and we returned. I remember very well how destroyed the church was. It was completely burnt. They destroyed all the crosses, stole what was inside the church, the images and everything else. ISIS leaders wrote their names on the columns of the church, and used the outside of the church as a training ground for new ISIS fighters.
How did you feel when you first returned and saw so much destruction?
When I saw the church destroyed and burnt, I first felt a great sadness. It was so sad to see the house of God empty and destroyed like that. But at the same time I felt joy and happiness to go back to the city and re-enter the church. So there was joy and sorrow at the same time.
What does it mean to you to be responsible for the reconstruction?
When the bishop asked me to lead the reconstruction team, it was a very happy moment for me because I remembered all those people who helped in the past to build the church, our parents and grandparents; I felt united with all those who shared their faith.
How has the reconstruction evolved?
The reconstruction started in 2019. The first phase of the work consisted of fixing the pillars, which took until the end of 2019. In 2020 we started the second and third phases, the reconstruction of the church inside and outside. Thank God, we have reached the final phase of the reconstruction, and we hope to finish all aspects of the reconstruction of the church soon.
What was the reaction of the community of believers to the rebuilding of the church?
The reconstruction of Al-Tahira church is very important for the Qaraqosh community. All the people here feel it is their home, part of their history. So it is very important to reopen the church. Of course, in Qaraqosh we started by helping people to rebuild their houses, also with the help of ACN. When we finished, many people asked us when we were going to start rebuilding the church. Thank God, we are almost finished. I feel that people are looking forward to being able to come back here and pray again and show everyone that their church is open and that we can pray to God again in this church.
What does the Pope’s visit mean to you?
It is great to be here at this moment in Qaraqosh to welcome our Pope. When it was announced that the Pope would visit Iraq and Qaraqosh, I felt very happy to be able to welcome the Holy Father here, in this church, in this city, and share our faith together. The Pope can help us to live our faith in these times, and we can show him what our life is like as Christians here in Qaraqosh, in Iraq.
What challenges do believers face here in Iraq?
In Iraq, Christians face many challenges. First of all, they are part of this country, which is still unstable. Of course, above all, we have to serve God to help us to continue our life in Iraq. As a community, we have many other challenges. As a minority, we do not have many possibilities to work, so we have to try hard to find employment for our people. However, the biggest problem is emigration. Many families are now far away from Qaraqosh and Iraq, and if the situation does not improve many of them may not return.
What is your message to ACN benefactors?
I would like to thank ACN for all it has done for us since we were displaced. When we fled from all the cities to Kurdistan, ACN supported us for three years. I thank all the benefactors for their help. When we returned to Qaraqosh, they also helped us with the reconstruction of houses and churches, and many other needs. Thank you very much and God bless you. We hope that together we can show the world our Christian faith.
Why should ACN’s benefactors not forget the people of Qaraqosh?
In the current situation we still need the help of organizations, and especially ACN, for the many needs of the churches in Qaraqosh. Please continue to help us and give our community hope that we can continue to live here in Qaraqosh.