Pope Francis called on the Christian community of Qaraqosh on Sunday, the third day of his historic pilgrimage to Iraq, dedicated to visiting war-ravaged sites in the Nineveh Plain, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Pope Francis prayed the Angelus with the faithful gathered in the recently restored Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, and exchanged gifts with the ecclesiastical dignitaries in the name of all the faithful.
Pope Francis received an intricately woven stole, and gave a magnificent icon of the Madonna and Child: a copy of the miraculous Icon of Our Lady of Smolensk, written – according to ancient tradition — by Saint Luke the Evangelist himself for the Christians at Antioch, depicting Our Lady “showing the way” to her Divine Son.
Qaraqosh is a name that will be familiar to readers who have followed the vicissitudes of the sorely tried Iraqi Christian community.
In early August of 2014, militant invaders fighting under the banner of the so-called Islamic State expelled the city’s 45,000 Christians. The invaders burned their homes and businesses, raped their women, and murdered those, who would not leave.
Make no mistake: Pope Francis’s presence in the city and its Church of the Immaculate Conception on Sunday was – as Syro-Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan said in greeting the Holy Father – an acknowledgment of their heroic witness and a testament to their unbreakable faith.
“We are proud,” said His Beatitude Youssef, “because, despite the horrors of the persecution, the faithful present here – along with their distant refugee family members – remained faithful to their unshakable love for the Gospel of peace and justice, following the example of their heroic ancestors.”
The Church of the Immaculate Conception was among those the so-called IS invaders profaned and destroyed during their ascendancy.
On Sunday, the church – Iraq’s largest Marian shrine – was resplendent.
“Thanks be to God,” said Patriarch Younan, “and thanks to the solidarity of Catholic charitable organizations, in particular Aid to Church in Need, L’Oeuvre d’Orient, and the Knights of Columbus, in addition to the contribution of the Hungarian government, we managed to rebuild a good part of the destroyed churches and homes.”
The rebuilding has inspired “above all, trust among the faithful, to return and look to the future of peaceful coexistence.”
Pope Francis’s message was simple and direct: “You are not alone,” he said. “The entire Church is close to you, with prayers and concrete charity.”
Pope Francis also acknowledged the great many people of the region, who opened their doors to you in time of need.
“With great sadness,” Pope Francis said, “we look around and see other signs, signs of the destructive power of violence, hatred and war.”
“How much has been torn down! How much needs to be rebuilt!” Pope Francis went on to say.
Still, he said: “Our gathering here today shows that terrorism and death never have the last word.”
“The last word,” Pope Francis said, “belongs to God and to his Son, the conqueror of sin and death.”
Taking note of the setting – in the Church of the Immaculate Conception – Pope Francis had special praise for the women, who bore so much of the suffering with steadfast courage and determination.
“I would like to say a heartfelt thank-you to all the mothers and women of this country, women of courage who continue to give life, in spite of wrongs and hurts,” Pope Francis said. “May women be respect and protected! May they be shown respect and provided with opportunities!”
Pope Francis spoke to those present, of the heroic example they have in their fathers and mothers in faith, “who worshipped and praised God in this place.” Praising their unwavering perseverance in hope, and their adamant trust in God’s promises, Pope Francis said: “The great spiritual legacy they left behind continues to live in you.”
“Embrace this legacy!” he said. “It is your strength!”
“Now is the time to rebuild and to start afresh,” Pope Francis exhorted, “relying on the grace of God, who guides the destinies of all individuals and peoples.”