As Pope Francis flew into Qaraqosh, Iraq, on March 7, his eye was drawn to the town’s highest point: the figure of Our Lady atop the bell tower of the Church of the Immaculate Conception — recently restored with support from the Knights of Columbus.
“As I arrived on the helicopter, I saw the statue of Mary,” the pope told the audience gathered at the church to meet him. “To her I entrusted the rebirth of this city.”
The Holy Father devoted March 7, the last full day of his pilgrimage in Iraq, to visiting cities and churches ravaged by ISIS in the Nineveh Plains region, the ancestral home of some of the country’s largest Catholic communities. After a morning prayer service in the ruins of Mosul, he arrived in Qaraqosh, also known as Baghdeda in Aramaic. The city once boasted 50,000 inhabitants, 90% of whom were Christian.
To date, about half of its former citizens have returned, and many of them lined the streets to greet the pope as he made his way to the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, known locally as Al-Tahira Church. There he was welcomed by a joyful congregation led by Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch.
Patriarch Younan, a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus, delivered remarks in which he recounted the grim history of the region under ISIS.
Al-Tahira, “the largest Christian shrine in Iraq, built by parishioners, was like many other churches profaned and half burned down by jihadi terrorists,” he explained. The church was used as a military base by ISIS fighters, who covered the walls in graffiti and shot its statues for target practice. Patriarch Younan thanked the charitable organizations, including the Knights, that helped rebuild the church.
Pope Francis then listened to two testimonies from survivors of the Aug. 6, 2014, invasion by Islamic State militants.
Father Ammar Yako, vicar general of the Syriac Catholic Archdiocese of Mosul, spoke about how he stayed behind, helping the last to leave their homes before he finally joined the more than 100,000 Christians fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan. And though Qaraqosh’s Christians endured three painful years as refugees, Father Yako said that they were “not ‘cursed years,’ but years of blessing. … The Lord did not abandon us: It was a miracle to bring life back into this city.”
Doha Sabah Abdallah, a resident of Qaraqosh, also spoke about that fateful day in 2014 when she heard a mortar shell and ran out of the house. The shell, fired by approaching militants, killed her son and two cousins.
“My faith tells me that my children are in the arms of Jesus Christ our Lord,” Abdallah said. “And we, the survivors, try to forgive the aggressor, because our Master Jesus has forgiven his executioners.”
In his remarks, Pope Francis spoke of the hope that comes from faith in Christ. “Our gathering here today shows that terrorism and death never have the last word,” he said. “The last word belongs to God and to his Son, the conqueror of sin and death. Even amid the ravages of terrorism and war, we can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death.”
He added: “One thing that Doha said moved me deeply. … Forgiveness; that is a key word.” He repeated this point the next day, during his in-flight press conference on his way back to Rome: “What touched me most was the testimony of a mother in Qaraqosh. … To forgive one’s enemies — this is the pure Gospel.”
Before departing, the Holy Father left a message, written in Italian, in the church’s book of honor: “From this destroyed and rebuilt church, a symbol of hope for Qaraqosh and all of Iraq, I invoke from God, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the gift of peace.”
The fact that Al-Tahiri Church was restored in time for the Holy Father’s visit is akin to a miracle. By the time Qaraqosh was liberated in 2016, the structure was a burned-out shell.
Father Yako, who oversaw the reconstruction efforts, explained that restoration of the church was put on a back burner after senior churchmen decided to prioritize rebuilding homes, to encourage families displaced by ISIS to return home.
Reconstruction began at the end of 2019, but funding came up short.
“Even with other support, we didn’t have enough to finish everything,” said Father Yako. “When we asked the Knights of Columbus to help us, they were very generous.”
A $440,000 donation was directed into Phase Three works, which focused on rebuilding exterior sections of the damaged building, including reinforcing foundations, building supporting walls, reconstructing the bell tower and building a new external gate.
The COVID-19 pandemic halted progress for several months in the spring of 2020, and then work continued sporadically, when pandemic regulations allowed.
News of the papal visit, however, prompted enthusiastic efforts toward early completion.
Vatican delegations were skeptical that it could be finished in time. But when those officials entered the church the day before the visit, Father Ammar said, the transformation made them ask, “Is this the same church?”
One of the exterior projects funded by the Knights was forging and erecting a new metal cross on the dome of the church because, as Father Ammar said, “Wherever ISIS saw a cross, they destroyed it and, if they couldn’t destroy it, they broke it.”
The external gate, through which Pope Francis entered, was also funded by the Order. The beautiful structure is adorned with sayings of saints about the Virgin Mary, written in the Assyrian language, which is close to Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
But the reconstruction of the bell tower, crowned by the Blessed Mother, was the most significant project for the community.
“The tower was very, very important for the local people,” Father Yako explained. “This church tower became a symbol of the town.”
When the Knights of Columbus established its Christian Refugee Relief Fund in August 2014, the future of Christianity in the Middle East hung in the balance. Since then, land claimed by ISIS has been reclaimed and Christians in Iraq have, with cautious hope, started to rebuild their churches, homes and lives.
Through it all, the Knights of Columbus has been a steadfast ally through campaigns to promote prayer and raise awareness, the advancement of public policy in defense of victims of religious persecution, and more than $25 million in aid for Christians at risk.
Many of the initiatives in Iraq supported by the K of C Christian Refugee Relief Fund have related to urgent humanitarian needs such as food and medical care. But the Order has also invest in rebuilding infrastructure — assisting in the construction of McGivney House, a 140-unit apartment building for young Iraqi families, and the 20-unit Pope Francis Venerable Care Home for elderly residents; contributing to the restoration of the largest church in Qaraqosh (see page 11); and helping families return to the predominantly Christian town of Karamles (see page 14), among other projects.
More recently, the Knights of Columbus has funded several projects at the Catholic University of Erbil (CUE), including a Center for Cultural Preservation and Property Rights and the construction of three additional buildings. It has likewise assisted a new nonprofit to advocate for Christian minorities, the Institute of Ancient and Threatened Christianity, located at CUE.
During his visit to Qaraqosh on March 7, Pope Francis acknowledged that the Church in Iraq still faces difficult challenges: “How much has been torn down! How much needs to be rebuilt!” But he also urged the community to have hope — a hope based on faith, the witness of their forefathers and the solidarity of their brothers and sisters in Christ.
“You are not alone!” Pope Francis said. “The entire Church is close to you, with prayers and concrete charity.”
Logos & Emblems
Fraternal Leader Advisory
Knights in Action
Share your Knights in Action News
Please contact the
Knights of Columbus News Bureau