In the Rubble of Iraq, Seeds of Hope Are Sprouting
In the war-torn region of Bashiqa, Iraq – located near Mosul – a brightly-colored mural hovers over a mound of rubble. The drawing is of a tree, blooming with green leaves, with the inscription “Tomorrow will be more beautiful” declared in red letters beside it.
This is as fitting an image as any for the Christian church in this area, emerging from the terror of the past few years, and beginning once again to bear fruit.
“I am optimistic, yes, very optimistic,” says Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche. “When you look around the villages, you see that life is back again. Shops and restaurants have opened once more. I see the people are serious about returning. On Palm Sunday only three families were back in Qaraqosh, but now about 1,500 families have returned. What is happening in Qaraqosh is encouraging to people from other villages in the Nineveh Plain.”
Not that long ago it was fitting to wonder if Christianity in Iraq would be able to survive. Over the past decades the number of Christians in the country has dramatically fallen from just under 2 million in the 1990s to around 200,000 right now.
Of course, in a country where there has only been political instability since 2003, there are a great many uncertainties for the Christian population. The announced referendum in the Kurdish area of Iraq on September 25th is one such example, where the Kurdish government will vote on whether to declare complete independence from Iraq.
“It is not clear what the future will look like,” Mouche says. “We have this issue between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments. We don’t know what the outcome of a referendum will mean for the Christians and for other minorities.”
But the bishop isn’t worried about the outcome. “The Kurdish government has respected us as Christians when we came to their area in 2014. They welcomed us, they loved us.” The bishop believes that the situation for Christians in the Nineveh Plain could return to normal as before the invasion of IS. “For Mosul it might be different. I expect few Christians to return there at this moment.” But even there he has seen positive developments. “Recently, a Muslim business man came to me. He said he wanted to finance the rebuilding of a church. That makes me optimistic. This is someone who wants to live in peace together. I trust God that things will be better.”
Even some of the Christian families that left the country after the invasion of IS are returning, according to the bishop. “I heard that seven families came back from France and more families are thinking of doing the same.”
Three years of displacement have shaken the faith of the Christians, the bishop says. “But I see that many have come closer to God; their faith has become stronger. You can see the churches are full.”
According to one of the priests in Bashiqa, Father Poulos, “In Iraq things are never guaranteed. Our future is in the hands of God. We pray that life will be better than it was before. But we see that the Christians have become stronger because of the crisis. Every crisis makes us stronger. You see that the Church became everything for the Christians.”
The Syriac Orthodox bishop Musa Al Shamany, living in the Mar Mattai monastery not far from Bashiqa, says: “I see positive trends at the moment, sure. We see people returning. Returning doesn’t mean that they solved all problems, that they have the ideal community now. I expect new problems in the future. But I know, we know, that God exists and we are here. Christians have a future in Iraq.”
Father Poulos and Father Daniel, important spiritual and symbolic figures to Christians in the area, have just recently returned to Bashiqa. According to Yousif Matti, one of the people who returned to Qaraqosh, “The church [returning] gives us the will to be back. We are lost without the church.” Yasi Saleem is a young woman who returned with her family to Qaraqosh. “The most important thing for our future is God. We hope the future will be better.”