Joyful Iraqi Christians return to Nineveh Plains to celebrate Holy Week

After almost a decade of death and destruction, and one year after the historic visit of Pope Francis to Iraq, more than 25,000 Assyrian Christians in Qaraqosh chanted “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna.” 

Qaraqosh, a majority-Christian Assyrian town located at the heart of the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq, is less than 20 miles southeast of Mosul, the city that in 2014 was the de facto capital of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the region.

Two decades ago, Mosul, Qaraqosh, and other towns in the Nineveh Plains were the home of approximately 1.5 million Christians in northern Iraq. After the second U.S. invasion in 2004 and the ISIS uprising in 2014, only about 300,000 Christians remained.

But on Palm Sunday, April 10, the town became the Christian epicenter of Iraq during a procession and a Mass presided by His Beatitude Ignatius Ephrem Joseph III Yonan and Patriarch of Antioch and all the East for the Syriac Catholic Church.

Accompanying them were Archbishop Mitja Lescovar, the apostolic nuncio to Iraq; Bishop Nathanael Nizar Samaan, metropolitan of the Syriac diocese of Hydiab-Erbil and the rest of the Kurdistan Region; Archbishop Ephrem Youssef Abba Mansour, of the Syriac Diocese of Baghdad, and Bishop Atanasius Firas Mundher Dardar, patriarchal vicar for the Syriac Catholics in Basra (Basorah) and the Arabian Gulf.  

The multitude of the faithful surrounded and walked along with Patriarch Younan, who was carrying a cross adorned with olive branches.

The procession around the town set off from the Great Church of St. Mary at Al-Tahira, the largest church building of the Syriac Catholic Church, and the largest church in Iraq since its consecration in 1952. The church was desecrated and burned by ISIS, but thanks to the help of Catholic organizations in the West, such as Aid to the Church in Need, it was restored in time for Pope Francis’ visit in March 2021.

Walking through the streets of the city, praying the rosary in Arabic and Syriac, and singing Palm Sunday songs were Christians from surrounding villages, different regions of Iraq, and even Iraqi expatriates from Europe, the United States, and Australia. 

Among the returnees was Sabah Yacoub, who was visiting from Germany.

“(Qaraqosh) lives in our blood because it is our rock. And all of Iraq lives in our blood, because it is our original land. We were forcibly displaced from it because of ISIS, who wanted to kill us, our families, our daughters, so we had to migrate from the country to a safe place,” Yacoub told ACI MENA, CNA’s Arabic-language sister news agency.

“I settled in Germany,” Yacoub continued, “but when we fall asleep it comes to our minds, so every year I come to Iraq on the holidays, in particular, and I consider it a pilgrimage to my country, and we wait for the day when we can find stability in (Qaraqosh) and our beloved Iraq.”

Qaraqosh has been only partially rebuilt and it is estimated that only half of its original Christian population is back. But the Catholic clergy, the first group to enter the town after ISIS’ defeat, continues to lead the reconstruction effort.

The Palm Sunday procession was decorated with palm fronds, roses, bright colors, and folkloric costumes characteristic of Holy Week and Easter.

As one of the six members of the Hana Qasha family told ACI MENA: “All people are rejoicing in the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We welcome our Lord Jesus Christ with songs, hymns, chants, various folk costumes and bright colors, the colors of spring. This is (Qaraqosh’s) wedding.”

The procession included the participation of the traditional confraternities of the Immaculate Conception and the Sacred Heart, and the catechumens who will be received into the Catholic Church on Easter. 

“We are here to announce to the world that we are in this region as the children of hope, the children of love who want to live a life of dignity under the banner of the cross and the banner of the one Iraqi flag,” Patriarch Younan said.

“Here we celebrate the occasion of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem, as even the stones cry out, ‘Hosanna to the son of David,’ and the church that was burned down by the Islamic State, was restored to scream, as its stones cry out, ‘Hosanna to the son of David,’” he said in closing.