Christians of Iraq’s Qaraqosh count on Pope Francis’ visit for moral support

Iraqi Christians of Qaraqosh attend the first Palm Sunday service at the heavily damaged Church of the Immaculate Conception on April 9, 2017, since Iraqi forces recaptured it from Daesh. (AFP/File Photo)
Iraqi Christians of Qaraqosh attend the first Palm Sunday service at the heavily damaged Church of the Immaculate Conception on April 9, 2017, since Iraqi forces recaptured it from Daesh. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 08 March 2021

Christians of Iraq’s Qaraqosh count on Pope Francis’ visit for moral support

Iraqi Christians of Qaraqosh attend the first Palm Sunday service at the heavily damaged Church of the Immaculate Conception on April 9, 2017, since Iraqi forces recaptured it from Daesh. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Daesh militants stormed the historical town in Nineveh governorate in August 2014, expelling its 45,000-strong Christian population
  • Some Christian residents feel that the time of sectarian conflicts that have plagued Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion has passed

QARAQOSH / IRBIL / MEXICO CITY: On a recent afternoon, Salah Hadi applied a coat of cement on a large ceramic tile and carefully pressed it into place. The 51-year-old’s home in the northern Iraqi town of Qaraqosh is still blackened with soot after Daesh militants set it ablaze in 2014. But with long ancestral ties to the town, Hadi is determined to repair the damage.

“I came back to Qaraqosh in 2017 after the war was over,” Hadi told Arab News as he stepped back to check that the new tiles were level. “The town was full of rubble and destruction. There were war remnants. Most of the houses were burned.”

The arrival of Pope Francis has offered the Nineveh governorate’s Christian population a keen sense of spiritual renewal, but also a moment for sad reflection on its traumatic recent experiences.

“The Daesh period was a time of pain and hardship,” said Hadi. “Every community in Iraq was hurt by Daesh’s attack. What happened during the time of Daesh was hard, but it has to be told.”




Nawyiyl Al-Qisitawmana, the priest at St. John the Baptist Syriac Catholic Church in Qaraqosh, says Daesh’s attack could have been avoided had the government protected them. (Mahamad Ameen Abdul Al-Jawad)

On Aug. 6-7, 2014, Daesh militants stormed Qaraqosh, expelling the town’s 45,000 Christians, tearing down crosses, burning ancient manuscripts and desecrating its precious religious architecture, including the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which Daesh turned into a firing range.

A month earlier, the militants had seized control of nearby Mosul and declared it the de-facto capital of their self-styled caliphate. Daesh went on to capture the ancestral homes of Iraq’s vulnerable ethno-religious minorities, including the Yazidi homeland of Sinjar.

Those unable to escape the group’s lightning advance were either forced to convert to its warped interpretation of Islam or put to death. Others were sold into slavery.

Since the US-led invasion in 2003, the Christian population of Iraq had fallen from around 1.5 million to around 350,000-450,000 in 2014. With many now choosing exile abroad, their numbers have dwindled further.

With his wife and three children in tow, Hadi fled the onslaught to the nearby city of Irbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq. After a brief stay with family, they moved to a makeshift displacement camp at a local church in Ankawa, a Christian neighborhood in the north of the city.

“Some families were late to leave. Daesh took them to Mosul,” Hadi said. “We thought it would last only a few days and we would be back in our home. But it was much longer.”

Hadi’s neighbor, Sharabil Noah, also fled to Irbil to escape the Daesh invasion. There he and his family rented a house until they felt it was safe enough to return.

“We didn’t take our belongings when we left. We thought it would be only a few days and we would be back home,” the 52-year-old told Arab News, a large cross hanging on the living room wall above his head.

“When we came back, the town was destroyed. It was a ghost town full of stray dogs. There was no water, no electricity, no infrastructure. All of it was gone.”




Salah Hadi is determined to rebuild his home in the town where his family has lived for generations. (Mahamad Ameen Abdul Al-Jawad)

Although he has struggled to find work, Noah is determined to rebuild his life in Qaraqosh. “This is the land of our ancestors. We will not leave it,” he said.

There is a deep sense of bitterness among many of Iraq’s Christians who believe the government in Baghdad had neglected them, allowed sectarian hatreds to fester, and abandoned them to their fate at the hands of Daesh.

“What happened in 2014 could have been avoided had there been real protection from the government,” Father Nawyiyl Al-Qisitawmana, the priest at St. John the Baptist Syriac Catholic Church in Qaraqosh, told Arab News. A large mural of Francis takes pride of place in the church’s cavernous, sky-blue nave.

“Iraqis have for many years suffered from wars, especially in the period of Al-Qaeda and Daesh. Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Sabeans are all oppressed in Iraq,” the 70-year-old said.

“With the pope’s visit, the world’s attention will be directed at Iraq. The world will know what occurred in Iraq when the pope visits the places that were destroyed by Daesh.

“The world will feel the suffering of the Iraqis. This visit will bring hope for all Iraqis, not only Christians. The pope is visiting the Iraqi people to encourage them to stay in Iraq and to live in peace and freedom.”




Sharabi Noah, who is determined to rebuild his life in Qaraqosh. (Mahamad Ameen Abdul Al-Jawad)

Francis was due to arrive in Irbil on Sunday before making his way by helicopter to Mosul. There he was scheduled to pray in the Square of the Four Churches — Syro-Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Chaldean — to honor the victims of Daesh and the savage battle to retake the city.

Before returning to Irbil, to hold Mass at Franso Hariri stadium, Francis was expected to make a stop in Qaraqosh. Well in advance of his visit, the streets were adorned with banners welcoming him.

“A visit by the pope is always big for any country, but here it’s more special,” Joseph Hanna, who is part of the local committee that will receive the pope, told Arab News.

“It is not only about reconstruction. The pope’s visit to the Christian areas represents moral support to the people and it’s a big reassurance to confirm life is beginning to come back.”

Hanna, 45, was especially pleased to see Francis visit Najaf to meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims — the first face-to-face meeting between a Catholic pontiff and a Shiite ayatollah. “In my opinion, it’s a great message of peace and coexistence,” he said.

Indeed, a show of solidarity from Al-Sistani now might give persecuted Christians a measure of protection from Iraq’s marauding Shiite militias that have terrorized Christian families and prevented many of them from returning home.




A member of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), a small Christian militia charged with protecting the predominantly Christian Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, returns back to his uncle's house in the town in 2017. (AFP/File Photo)

Noah wants security guarantees to prevent further persecution. “I would like to have international protection for us here that can assure the Christians that they can stay here, where their rights will be given and the Christians who left are allowed to return,” he said.

“The pope’s visit raises the spirits of Christians in Iraq and tells them there are people who care for them out there. I hope this visit will strengthen relations between the communities here.”

With help from aid agencies, life is gradually returning to normal in Qaraqosh. Hadi, for one, is confident better times lie ahead. “It is sad what has happened to Iraq,” he said as he scooped up more cement using a trowel to install another tile. “We have to stand together and be united in this country, so we can rebuild it over again.”

There is a palpable sense that the time of sectarian conflicts that have plagued Iraq since 2003 has passed and that the country can only move forward if it embraces its multi-confessional identity.

“Daesh feels like a far-off memory that is long gone now,” Hadi said, dusting off his hands. “We forgot about them. It’s over.”


Erdogan to meet Greek PM next week

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (AP)
Updated 9 sec ago

Erdogan to meet Greek PM next week

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (AP)
  • Regional rivals have been at odds over a host of maritime issues in the Mediterranean and migration

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that he would meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly next week in New York.

The NATO members and regional rivals have been at odds over a host of maritime issues in the Mediterranean and migration.
Mitsotakis said on Friday that Turkey was an important partner in tackling any new migration challenge to Europe and needed support.
Speaking at a news conference before departing for New York, Erdogan said Turkey, which hosts some 4 million refugees — most of whom are Syrians — was “suffering the biggest burden and the heaviest downsides” of migration, adding that Turkey would take the necessary steps if its counterparts did not.
The Turkey’s president also said his country was ready for talks with Armenia but added Yerevan needed to take steps toward opening a controversial transport link through its territory.
Armenia and Turkey never established diplomatic relations and their shared border has been closed since the 1990s.
The ties have deteriorated due to Turkey’s support for its regional ally Azerbaijan, which fought with Armenia last year for control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
But earlier this month, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Yerevan was prepared to hold discussions on repairing relations with Ankara.
“If he (Pashinyan) would like to meet with Tayyip Erdogan, then certain steps should be taken,” Erdogan said.
He was referring to the creation of a transit corridor that would have to go through Armenia to connect Azerbaijan to its Nakchivan enclave that borders Turkey and Iran.
“We are not closed to talks (with Armenia), we will hold the talks,” Erdogan said.
“I hope that not a negative but a positive approach will prevail there,” he said. “God willing, the problem between Azerbaijan and Armenia will be overcome with the opening of the corridors.”


Morocco’s Justice and Development Party decries ‘violations’ at polls

Abdellatif Ouahbi, president of Morocco's Authenticity and Modernity party (C), gives a speech after his party came in second in parliamentary and local elections, in Rabat on September 9, 2021. (AFP)
Abdellatif Ouahbi, president of Morocco's Authenticity and Modernity party (C), gives a speech after his party came in second in parliamentary and local elections, in Rabat on September 9, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 12 min 50 sec ago

Morocco’s Justice and Development Party decries ‘violations’ at polls

Abdellatif Ouahbi, president of Morocco's Authenticity and Modernity party (C), gives a speech after his party came in second in parliamentary and local elections, in Rabat on September 9, 2021. (AFP)
  • Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has named businessman Aziz Akhannouch to lead a new government after his National Rally of Independents, considered close to the palace, thrashed the Justice and Development Party, winning 102 seats

RABAT: Morocco’s moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party, which was thrashed at last week’s elections, on Sunday denounced “violations and irregularities” at the polls.
The party had headed Morocco’s governing coalition for a decade but saw its support collapse at the Sept. 8 vote, dropping from 125 of parliament’s 395 seats to just 13.
Local elections held the same day confirmed the party’s crushing defeat.
The party “denounces the violations and irregularities” at the polls, including “massive use of money,” “manipulation of reports” and “names crossed off the electoral lists or appearing twice,” it said in a statement following Saturday’s extraordinary session of the party’s national council.
These “forms of electoral corruption ... led to the announcement of results that do not reflect the substance of the political map and the free will of the voters,” the statement added.
Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit has said the voting process took “under normal circumstances” apart from isolated incidents.

SPEEDREAD

• Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit says the voting process took ‘under normal circumstances’ apart from isolated incidents.

• On voting day, the Islamists had alleged ‘serious irregularities,’ including ‘obscene cash handouts’ near polling stations and ‘confusion’ on some electoral rolls, with some voters finding they were not listed.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has named businessman Aziz Akhannouch to lead a new government after his National Rally of Independents, considered close to the palace, thrashed the Justice and Development Party, winning 102 seats.
On voting day, the Islamists had alleged “serious irregularities,” including “obscene cash handouts” near polling stations and “confusion” on some electoral rolls, with some voters finding they were not listed.
The National Rally of Independents has started coalition talks, but the Justice and Development Party has announced that it would switch to its “natural” position as the opposition.
The party “is at an important turning point,” outgoing secretary-general Saad-Eddine El-Othmani said Saturday at the party’s closed-door meeting.

 


Lebanon has not asked for fuel from Iran: Mikati

Lebanese police stand guard in front of the central bank building, where anti-government demonstrators protest against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut. (AP/File)
Lebanese police stand guard in front of the central bank building, where anti-government demonstrators protest against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut. (AP/File)
Updated 29 min 50 sec ago

Lebanon has not asked for fuel from Iran: Mikati

Lebanese police stand guard in front of the central bank building, where anti-government demonstrators protest against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut. (AP/File)
  • Introduction of Iranian diesel tankers goes against integrity of the state, says Al-Rahi

BEIRUT: A source close to Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati told Arab News on Sunday: “The state of Lebanon has not asked Iran for fuel. This position had been officially expressed and has not changed.”

In response to a question about Hezbollah bringing Iranian fuel into Lebanon, Mikati told CNN on Saturday: “I am saddened by the lack of Lebanese sovereignty.
“The Lebanese government didn’t approve this … so I don’t believe the (it) would be subject to any sanctions,” he added.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh commented on Mikati’s statements to CNN, saying on Sunday that sending Iranian fuel to Lebanon “happened according to a standard purchase process by Lebanese merchants. If the Lebanese government also wants to buy fuel from Iran, we would be happy to oblige.”
During Sunday mass, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi denounced the fact that Hezbollah entered Lebanon through the party’s illegal crossings on the Syrian border with tankers loaded with Iranian fuel.

The state cannot be built on practices or
positions that contradict its entity and institutions.
Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi
Lebanese Maronite Patriarch

“The state cannot be built on practices or positions that contradict its entity and institutions,” he said, adding that the recent entry of fuel tankers and the obstruction of the investigation into the Beirut Port explosion were “among such practices.”
Al-Rahi expressed the hope that the new government would “work as a united national team to stop the collapse and confront the continuous attack attempts against the state and its democratic system.”

HIGHLIGHTS

• On Monday, PM Mikati’s government is expected to receive parliament’s vote of confidence with approximately 100 votes out of 128. It is expected that a vote of no confidence will be limited to the MPs of the Lebanese Forces bloc and several independent MPs.

• The Lebanese are still floundering with a series of never-ending crises, the foremost of which is the fuel crisis. Long queues at gas stations have remained the same, and the power rationing hours have not improved either.

He further called on the government to “carry out reforms, mobilize the financial and economic cycle, solve the fuel and electricity crises, and close the smuggling crossings on the border.”
On Monday, Mikati’s government is expected to receive parliament’s vote of confidence with approximately 100 votes out of 128. It is expected that a vote of no confidence will be limited to the MPs of the Lebanese Forces bloc and several independent MPs.
The Lebanese are still floundering with a series of never-ending crises, the foremost of which is the fuel crisis. Neither the arrival of Iraqi fuel to Electricité du Liban nor that of Iranian diesel has yielded positive results yet. Long queues at gas stations have remained the same, and the power rationing hours have not improved either.
A 20-liter canister of gasoline is being sold on the black market for 500,000 Lebanese pounds ($327), while the official new price is 180,000 Lebanese pounds.
The long queues at gas stations continue to pose security risks. On Sunday, armed men attacked a gas station in the town of Beit Chama in the Bekaa, opening fire and threatening to kill the owner.
Politicians, meanwhile, were preoccupied with the repercussions of Halliburton winning a contract to explore oil and gas in the disputed maritime border area between Lebanon and Israel.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “take urgent and immediate action before the Security Council and the international community to verify the possibility of a new Israeli attack on Lebanese sovereignty and rights because any exploration contract with Halliburton or other companies in the disputed area undermines the framework agreement sponsored by the US and the UN.”
Lebanese-Israeli negotiations over the disputed area were held under US auspices and stopped in April after the Lebanese delegation insisted that negotiations start from Line 29 of the border, which enlarges the size of the disputed area to 2,290 km instead of 860 km.
This area was based on a map sent in 2011 to the UN, but Lebanon later considered this map to be based on wrong estimates, so it demanded an additional area of 1,430 square km, including parts of the Karish gas field, in which a Greek company works for Israel.
The current Lebanese proposal is known as Line 29, and Israel has accused Lebanon of obstructing negotiations by expanding the disputed area.


Syria’s defense chief meets Jordan’s army commander in Amman

Syria’s defense chief meets Jordan’s army commander in Amman
Updated 19 September 2021

Syria’s defense chief meets Jordan’s army commander in Amman

Syria’s defense chief meets Jordan’s army commander in Amman
  • Meeting was “to increase coordination in the field of border security”: Hala Akhbar news site
  • Petra said Huneiti and Ayoub discussed border situation in southern Syria and fighting terrorism

AMMAN: Syria’s defense minister met Sunday with Jordan’s army chief in Amman after after Syrian troops captured several rebel-held areas near Jordan’s border, state media reported.
The Hala Akhbar news site, which is linked to Jordan’s military, reported that the meeting between Jordanian Gen. Yousef Huneiti and Syrian Gen. Ali Ayoub was “to increase coordination in the field of border security to serve the interests of the two brotherly countries.”
The recent push by Syrian troops in the country’s south is the biggest since government forces captured wide areas along the border in 2018, including the Nassib border crossing.
The crossing with Jordan was reopened in 2018, months after it fell under Syrian government control. Syrian rebels had seized the site in 2015, severing a lifeline for the government in Damascus and disrupting a major trade route linking Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the oil-rich Gulf countries.
Ayoub’s visit came nearly two weeks after Syrian forces entered the rebel-held district of the volatile southern city of Daraa as part of a truce negotiated by Russia to end weeks of fighting. In the days that followed, Syrian troops captured rebel-held parts of several villages near Daraa.
The latest push by Syrian troops brings all parts of southern Syria under full government control.
Petra, Jordan’s state news agency, said Huneiti and Ayoub discussed border security, the situation in southern Syria, fighting terrorism and confronting narcotics smuggling.
Syrian state TV said the visit came at the invitation of Jordan’s army commander, adding that Ayoub was accompanied by top army officers. It said the talks focused on “fighting terrorism and border control.”
Jordan is a close Western ally and has long been seen as an island of stability in the turbulent Mideast. The kingdom hosts more than 650,000 Syrian refugees.
Earlier this month, ministers from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt said after meeting in Amman that Egyptian natural gas should reach Lebanon through Jordan and Syria as soon as next month, after maintenance of pipelines and the review of a deal interrupted 10 years ago.


TankerTrackers says third tanker carrying fuel to Lebanon underway

TankerTrackers says third tanker carrying fuel to Lebanon underway
Updated 19 September 2021

TankerTrackers says third tanker carrying fuel to Lebanon underway

TankerTrackers says third tanker carrying fuel to Lebanon underway
  • The first tanker ship carried the fuel to Syria and from there it was taken into Lebanon on tanker trucks on Thursday
  • Mikati said on Friday the Iranian fuel shipments constitute a breach of Lebanon’s sovereignty

DUBAI: A third tanker has sailed from Iran carrying Iranian fuel for distribution in Lebanon, TankerTrackers.com reported on Twitter on Sunday.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Friday the Iranian fuel shipments, imported by the Hezbollah movement, constitute a breach of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
The Iran-aligned group says the shipments should ease a crippling energy crisis in Lebanon.
The first tanker ship carried the fuel to Syria and from there it was taken into Lebanon on tanker trucks on Thursday.
Both Syria and Iran are under US sanctions.