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.”


Several people hurt after train derails in Egypt

Several people hurt after train derails in Egypt
Updated 16 min 48 sec ago

Several people hurt after train derails in Egypt

Several people hurt after train derails in Egypt

CAIRO: Several people were hurt in Egypt after eight train carriages derailed in Qalioubia province north of Cairo on Sunday, the province's verified page on Facebook said.
Twenty ambulances rushed to the site, it said.
Some local media reports said some people had been killed in the accident.

The train departed Cairo at 1:20 P.M. and was due to arrive in Mansoura at 5:00 P.M. 
Officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

 


Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report

Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report
Updated 18 April 2021

Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report

Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report
  • National television has published a photo and identified the alleged saboteur as Reza Karimi
  • A Red Notice is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person

TEHRAN: Iran has asked Interpol to help arrest a suspect in a sabotage attack on its Natanz nuclear facility which it blames on Israel, a local newspaper reported Sunday.
National television has published a photo and identified the man as 43-year-old Reza Karimi, saying the intelligence ministry had established his role in last week’s “sabotage” at Natanz.
The broadcaster said the suspect had “fled the country before the incident” and that “legal procedures to arrest and return him to the country are currently underway.”
Neither state TV nor other media provided further details on the suspect. The intelligence ministry has not issued an official statement.
The ultraconservative Kayhan daily reported in its Sunday edition that “intelligence and judicial authorities” are engaged in the process.
It added that “after his identity was established, necessary measures were taken through Interpol to arrest and return” the suspect.
Kayhan did not specify what form of Interpol assistance had been requested.
As of Sunday noon, Interpol’s public “red notice” list online returned no results for Reza Karimi.
A Red Notice is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender or similar legal action, according to Interpol’s website.
A “small explosion” hit the Natanz plant’s electricity distribution system a week ago, according to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
The Iranian foreign ministry accused arch-foe Israel of an act of “nuclear terrorism” and vowed revenge.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement but public radio reports said it was a sabotage operation by the Mossad spy agency, citing unnamed intelligence sources.
The New York Times, quoting unnamed US and Israeli intelligence officials, also said there had been “an Israeli role” in the attack.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh last week indirectly accused Israel of attempting to scuttle talks underway in Vienna aimed at reviving a landmark nuclear agreement.
The talks are focused on bringing the US back in to the accord after former president Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, and to bring Iran back into compliance with key nuclear commitments it suspended in response to the sanctions.


Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament
Updated 18 April 2021

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament

DAMASCUS: Syria is to hold a presidential election on May 26, the parliament speaker announced Sunday, the country's second in the shadow of civil war, seen as likely to keep President Bashar Al-Assad in power.
Syrians abroad will be "able to vote at embassies" on May 20, Hamouda Sabbagh said in a statement, adding that prospective candidates could hand in their applications from Monday.
Assad, who took power following the death of his father Hafez in 2000, has not yet officially announced that he will stand for re-election.
He won a previous election three years into Syria's devastating civil war in 2014, with 88 percent of the vote.
Under Syria's 2012 constitution, a president may only serve two seven-year terms -- with the exception of the president elected in the 2014 poll.
Candidates must have lived continuously in Syria for at least 10 years, meaning that opposition figures in exile are barred from standing.
Candidates must also have the backing of at least 35 members of the parliament, which is dominated by Assad's Baath party.
This year's vote comes after Russian-backed Syrian government forces re-seized the vital northern city of Aleppo and other opposition-held areas, placing Damascus in control of two-thirds of the country.
But the poll also comes amid a crushing economic crisis.
The decade-long civil war has left at least 388,000 people dead and half of the population displaced.


Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together
Updated 18 April 2021

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together
  • Foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, Cyprus, UAE met in Paphos on Friday
  • ‘Greater Mediterranean region emerging based on new partnerships, initiatives,’ expert tells Arab News

ATHENS: Common interests are bringing together regional coalitions of like-minded countries in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean — favoring stability, combating extremism and respecting international law — in bilateral and multilateral formats.

The latest examples of this diplomatic activism are the meeting of the foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, Cyprus and the UAE that took place on Friday; and the forthcoming visit of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos to Saudi Arabia.

The four-way talks in the Cypriot city of Paphos marked the first time that the UAE had participated in one of the multilateral forums that have been created in the eastern Mediterranean since 2010.

In Riyadh, Dendias and Panagiotopoulos will sign a Status of Forces Agreement that will pave the way for the development of a Patriot-2 antimissile battery in Saudi Arabia in order to help the Kingdom in its fight against the Houthi militia in neighboring Yemen.

“The evolving web of regional cooperation is creating a new narrative, one that is cracking the glass ceiling of the prevailing, restrictive narrative of our neighborhood as a region of turmoil, conflict and crisis,” said Nikos Christodoulides, Cypriot foreign minister and host of the Paphos meeting.

The four-way talks will benefit from the recent normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE, and could offer an opportunity for the latter to join other regional efforts.

“A partnership that comprises both Israel and the UAE is very important for regional stability,” said Dendias. “We also welcome other regional initiatives undertaken with the aim of regional peace, such as the AlUla Accord, as well as the Saudi initiative that aims at bringing peace to the conflict in Yemen.”

Spyridon N. Litsas, professor of international relations at the University of Macedonia in Greece, and at the Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi, told Arab News: “The meeting of Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Israel in Paphos signals two main facts. Firstly, the UAE and Israel seem able and willing to jointly contribute to the stabilization of the region. Secondly, smart diplomatic deterrence is taking a more definitive shape, and is oriented toward countering Turkish revisionism in the region.”

Ankara’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean, and its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, have raised regional concerns.

“Alliances are formed either to balance the threat of an aggressor, or to balance the power of a revisionist actor,” Litsas said.

“Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Israel prove that alliances can also be formed on the basis of a smart approach toward Αnkara’s atavism. Turkey produces more revisionism than neighboring states can tolerate.”

The visit of Greece’s foreign and defense ministers to Riyadh has been long in the making, having been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Athens wants to enhance its defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia, as it has done with the UAE.

Saudi F-15 fighter aircraft were stationed in Greece’s Souda Bay airbase last summer, and the two countries have engaged in political consultations at the highest level.

Athens aims to advance its role in linking the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. “A Greater Mediterranean region is emerging based on new partnerships and initiatives linking the Gulf with Mediterranean states,” Aristotle Tziampiris, professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus, told Arab News.

“Greece is in the middle of this important development that’s based on common interests and viewpoints, which include viewing Turkey as an increasingly unpredictable actor and Iran as a potentially serious, even existential threat.”

In February, “Athens established the Philia (Friendship) Forum, comprising Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” said Tziampiris.

“Greece is coming, without any doubt, closer to several Gulf countries aiming to contribute to regional stability.”


Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement
Updated 18 April 2021

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement
  • Police-enforced wearing of protective masks outdoors scrapped from Sunday
  • But requirement still applied for indoor public spaces

JERUSALEM: Israel rescinded the mandatory wearing of face masks outdoors and fully reopened schools on Sunday in the latest return to relative normality, boosted by a mass-vaccination campaign against the COVID-19 pandemic.
With almost 54 percent of its 9.3 million population having received both shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, Israel has logged sharp drops in contagion and cases.
The police-enforced wearing of protective masks outdoors, ordered a year ago, was scrapped from Sunday, but the Health Ministry said the requirement still applied for indoor public spaces and urged citizens to keep masks to hand.
With Israeli kindergarteners, elementary and high school students already back in class, middle school pupils who had been kept at home or attended class sporadically returned to pre-pandemic schedules.
The education ministry said that schools should continue to encourage personal hygiene, ventilation of classrooms and to maintain social distancing as much distance as possible during breaks and lessons.
Israel counts East Jerusalem Palestinians among its population and has been administering the vaccines there.
The 5.2 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Islamist Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have been receiving limited supplies of vaccines provided by Israel, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, the global COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme and China.