Yousif at the door of Saint-Mary al-Tahira Church
“IS can destroy our building but they can never destroy our church”
Qaraqosh, Iraq, November 2018. Eighteen-year-old Yousif wanders through a dimly lit church building. His steps are slow. Every once in a while he stops and stares at the dusty floor. Maybe he is trying to remember the church as it was when he left: lively and colourful. Now, the ceiling is blackened by fire, and the walls smeared with IS graffiti. There is little left of the building after IS used it as a shooting range for two years. Yousif is part of the 30 per cent of inhabitants who have returned to Qaraqosh after its liberation.
How does he continue with his life after all that has happened?
Rewind to August 6, 2014. Yousif is 14. The sun is barely up, Yousif and his family have been in the car all night. They fled with just the clothes on their backs. Now IS is attacking their city while they are stuck in a traffic jam of refugees heading towards the safer Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Yousif is terrified.
There is just one thing on his mind: survive.
Yousif on the morning to Erbil
Yousif and his family reached Erbil in the afternoon of that same day. Then, for more than two years, they lived in a refugee camp hosted by a local church.
On October 19, 2016 the good news came: Qaraqosh was liberated! But after initial joy the first images of the city came in. It had been completely ravaged and destroyed by IS fighters.
In the video below, you can see how Yousif and his family found their home after returning to Qaraqosh.
Below you see Qaraqosh after liberation, the music shop of Yousif’s family, totally destroyed.
Back to 2018. It is more than a year after liberation, and Qaraqosh is slowly coming back to life. Houses have been restored and schools have been reopened. Yousif and his family live in Qaraqosh again. It is different from before though, Yousif tells us – 70 per cent of his friends have left Iraq.
The difficult economic situation, and the slumbering possibility of violence returning – Iraq hasn’t had a day of peace since Yousif was a toddler – all contributes to a feeling of hopelessness, and fear about what the future might hold. “We don’t know what is going to happen, we don’t know what we should do, and we don’t know if the future will be better or worse,” said Yousif.
He srtuggles with the situation. “I don’t want to leave this place, I don’t want to forget it. This is where I grew up, this is where I’ve known good times. But I cannot reach my goals here, there is no future,” shared Yousif.
Does this mean this is a sad story, a story without hope? Most certainly not. Because even if the world around you falls apart, Jesus never leaves you. You might see Him clearer even: “Since I came back to Qaraqosh, I’ve started reading my Bible again. Every night before I go to sleep, I read some verses. And when I finish reading my Bible, I talk to God. I ask Him for hope, and for peace. The conversations I have with Him are very special,” explained Yousif.
Yousif believes that even though his community went through dark times, they can still smile and be happy.
“We say to each other that we are going to rebuild this city, we are going to turn this bad situation around into a good thing. We haven’t lost our faith. Me personally, I am stronger than before.”
There is scaffolding and wheelbarrows all around the church building. It will be restored. It goes slowly, but the city will come back to life one day. The church community, supported by organizations like Open Doors’ partner in the country, are adding new bricks every day.
But the buildings aren’t the most important thing, Yousif knows. He turns his head to listen to something. What is really important is the sound he hears in the distance – a prayer being sung by a group of women.
Yousif sits down silently in one of the pews at the back of the chapel that has already been restored. He folds his hands, observes the scene before him and thoughtfully concludes:
“IS can destroy our buildings, but they can never destroy the Church.”
He might sometimes loose hope, but he never lost his faith.
WHAT IS THE CURRENT SITUATION IN IRAQ?
The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) may have lost territory in Iraq, but their ideology remains with many of the militants having simply blended back into the general population.
Violence against Christians continues – attacks, abductions and even murders are still taking place. Some of the houses of those who fled to escape IS have been illegally occupied.
Christians from muslim backgrounds often keep their faith a secret – leaving Islam is seen as a huge source of shame, and they may be attacked by family members or others in the community if their new faith is discovered.
Open Doors works through local partners and churches to support Christians in Iraq through Bible distribution, training, crisis relief and practical support for displaced believers.
Open Doors’ goal is to “strengthen what remains and is about to die” (Rev 3:2). This verse is especially applicable to the situation of the Iraqi and Syrian church.