Iraqi Dominicans visit home for the first time in more than two years
In November, seven Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Iraq had a chance to do something they had not been able to in more than two years: return home, if only for a visit.
Twenty-four of the sisters — and thousands of others — fled the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh, Iraq, on Aug. 6, 2014, as soldiers from the so-called Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, took over. Since then, they have been ministering to the thousands of refugees in Erbil and Duhok, east and north of Mosul, respectively.
Now, Iraqi forces are retaking the Nineveh Plain and hope to retake Mosul soon. After they took Qaraqosh, about a half-hour southeast of Mosul, Mass was held in the Church of the Immaculate Conception for the first time in more than two years. Or, more accurately, what is left of the church: Most of it is burned rubble.
Thanks to the efforts of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, who have close ties to their Iraqi counterparts, Global Sisters Report was able to reach Dominican Sr. Marie Therese Hanna by email to ask her about the freeing of Qaraqosh.
"This Mass was a greater shock than the first one when we were obliged to flee out of our homes, because a lot of damage was done to our churches and convents that hold our history and [our] gathering together as a Christian community," Hanna wrote. "Also, most of the houses were demolished and burned as well as the churches. This made our people hopeless, and they don't have a hope in a better future."
Though many in Irbil had anxiously awaited the chance to go home, seeing the destruction has changed their minds.
"Most of the families we met; they are thinking and preparing to leave the country and their home villages," Hanna wrote. "In addition to the damage, there are a lot of frightening tunnels dug by ISIS in some houses, which we don't know what is hidden inside and where it goes. We need to wait until the liberation of Mosul and the whole region — as a result, things are not changing for the better since the security is not assured and the situation is obscure."
Because of the destruction, the return to Qaraqosh was just a visit.
"Most of the sisters are in Erbil and Duhok and are keeping good. Their ministry is very promising because they share widely in pastoral work, they work in government schools, they run their own private schools which they created in Kurdistan, they teach in the universities and in healthcare centers, ect.," Hanna wrote. "[But] for now the sisters are not able to return to their home. Nobody can live there."
Hanna said even after ISIS is defeated, Iraq will never be the same, and the sisters have no idea when or if they will be able to return to Qaraqosh for good. But they will continue to minister to people's needs, no matter what.
"Iraq will not be the same, different challenges will appear. We don't know [what they will be] as we don't know the future, but one thing we know, we will accompany our people. Also we are tied to the leaders of our church, we are ready to follow whatever they will decide to do," she wrote. "To go back, there are essential things that should be available, such as: security, infrastructure, rebuilding the houses, economic affairs. There should be opportunities for work to assure a standard of living, especially for the youth who are in charge of their families. Of course, the sisters' mission is decided according to our Iraqi people's need and situation."
Hope, she wrote, has been hard to find — except in God.
"Our faith in God and His grace sustain us in the midst of this hard time. Our prayers and our community life helps us to be strong and not to collapse. The Word of God strengthens our faith and our perseverance although we are weak," she wrote. "What pushes us to be hopeful is our faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. Our feeling of responsibility to our people and how to be the sign of hope to them keep us aware and hopeful."
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Remember, links, tips and accounts of the response to any crisis anywhere in the world are always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.