Syriac Catholic patriarch 'horrified' after seeing Iraqi 'ghost towns'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Thaier Al-Sudani, Reuters

By Doreen Abi Raad

(CNS) — The Syriac Catholic patriarch said he was horrified to see widespread
devastation and what he called “ghost towns” during a recent visit to
northern Iraq.

Patriarch Ignace
Joseph III Younan wrote in an email to
Catholic News Service that there was little left in some of the communities that he
toured Nov. 27-29 and that “the emptiness of the streets except for
military people … the devastation and burned-out houses and churches”
was shocking.

100,000 Christians — among them more than 60,000
Syriac Catholics — were expelled from the Ninevah Plain by the Islamic
State group in the summer of 2014 as the
militants campaigned to expand their reach into Iraq.

Patriarch Younan also called for understanding from the incoming administration
of President-elect Donald Trump about the plight and ordeal of all minorities,
including Christians affected by violence in the region.

The patriarch told CNS about “walking through
the Christian towns of Qaraqosh,
Bartella and Karamles and witnessing the extent of devastation as if we
had entered ghost towns!”

Graffiti and inscriptions “expressing hatred
toward Christian symbols and doctrine were seen everywhere” on walls near streets,
outside and inside houses and churches, he wrote.

from the looting, destruction of and damage to buildings, we discovered that
the terrorists, out of hatred to the Christian faith, set fire to most of the buildings, including churches, schools,
kindergartens and hospitals,” the patriarch’s message said, noting that
only Christian properties were targeted.

In Qaraqosh — once inhabited by more than 50,000
Christians — the patriarch celebrated the Eucharist Nov. 28 “on an
improvised small altar” in the incinerated sanctuary of the vandalized
Church of the Immaculate Conception. That church, which had 2,200 seats before
its desecration by Islamic State, was built by parishioners in the 1930s.

people could attend the liturgy, among them a few
clergy and some armed youth and media representatives, the patriarch said.

“In my short homily, I just wanted to strengthen their
faith in the redeemer’s altar and cross, although both were half broken behind
us. I reminded them that we Christians are the descendants of martyrs and
confessors, with a long history dating back to the evangelization of the apostles,”
he wrote.

“I had the intention after its restoration five years
ago, and still have it, to ask the Holy Father, the pope, to name this church
as a minor basilica,” the patriarch added.

In addition to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in
Qaraqosh, all of the churches the patriarch’s delegation visited, including St.
Behnam and St. Sarah Monastery, which dates to the fourth century, sustained
significant damage or were destroyed.

opening the trip Nov. 27 in Irbil, which escaped being occupied by the
militants, Patriarch Younan celebrated Mass for more
than 800 displaced people at Our Lady of Peace Syriac Catholic Church. Located
in the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq, where many of those uprooted from
the Ninevah Plain sought refuge, the church recently opened to serve refugees.

Concelebrating the liturgy were Syriac Catholic Archbishops
Yohanna Moshe of Mosul
and Ephrem Mansoor Abba of Baghdad
and 20 priests. Patriarch Younan said he felt “mixed feelings” among
the worshippers, who were pleased that the Islamic State group had been forced
out of the Ninevah Plain during the current Iraqi military campaign, but also
were saddened because of the “horrendous state” in which the
militants left their communities.

The patriarch also said he met with the faith
community, religious leaders and nongovernmental organizations to discuss the
future of Christianity in northern Iraq.

Based on “what happened in recent times,” the
patriarch noted, “it was the overall opinion that none would dare to
return, rebuild and stay in the homeland, unless a safe zone for the Christian
communities in the Plain of Ninevah is guaranteed.”

called for a “stable, law-abiding and strong government” to support
the establishment of an eventual self-administrative province under
the central government of Iraq.

“I therefore reiterate what I have been saying for
years. We, Christians in Iraq and Syria, feel abandoned, even betrayed, by the
Western politicians of recent times,” Patriarch Younan said.

“We have been sold out for oil and forgotten because
of our small number compared to the ‘Islamic Ummah’ (Islamic nation) in
which we have lived for centuries.”

The patriarch urged the “so-called ‘civilized world’
to uphold its principles and to seriously defend” the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, which he described as “vital for our

“It is time to stand up and condemn those regimes that
still discriminate against non-Muslim communities, with (their) excuses such as
… ‘our law, our education and governing system’ are based on our ‘particularities
of culture, history and religion,'” the patriarch continued.

Patriarch Younan expressed his “strong hope” that
the Trump administration “will understand our plight and the ordeal of all
minorities, including Christians.”

“It is time that the United States be respected around
the world,” and most particularly in the Middle East, as “a nation of
hope and freedom and not a land of opportunism.”

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