11 April 2017

Hundreds of Iraqi Christians return to burned out churches and celebrate Palm Sunday

On 9 April hundreds of Christians celebrated Palm Sunday in burned out churches in Qaraqosh and Karamles, towns near Mosul that were recently liberated from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).

Qaraqosh was Iraq's largest Christian town until its 50,000 inhabitants were forced to flee in August 2014. The displaced Christians haven't been able to move back to Qaraqosh since the liberation of the town, as there is continuing insecurity in the region, and houses and infrastructure have been destroyed.

But for one day, they were able to go back and celebrate their faith. Hundreds of Christians marched through the streets of Qaraqosh, some carrying big banners saying 'Blessed is he who is coming in the name of the Lord, hallelujah' or 'Hosanna for the Son of David', others walking with palm leaves, remembering Jesus' entry to Jerusalem when he was welcomed by people waving palm leaves. They then held a church service in the burned and damaged church. "Thank God, we are returning to our towns and churches after two years," said one of the church leaders in Qaraqosh.

Between 400 and 500 church members also returned to Karamles to celebrate Palm Sunday. Karamles is a Christian village that was home to 800 families before the invasion of IS; despite being liberated, the damage to the village means that families haven't been able to return yet. But Father Thabet, the local church leader, organised for the church to be cleaned and repaired in the week leading up to Palm Sunday so that displaced Christians could return to celebrate.

Father Thabet said, "I am very happy we could do so. After the church service we had a meal on the hill of Saint Barbara. Seeing all the people made me cry. I was very happy to return and celebrate, this was very significant for me and for many people from Karamles."

He is planning to move a big generator to Karamles after Easter, so that families that want to begin repairing their homes will have access to electricity. A house next to the church is being turned into a Centre of Encouragement and Support, where people can stay while they work on their homes.

"But this week we will have our preparations for the celebration of Easter," Thabet said. "We will have that celebration in Ankawa. We already had the celebration at Palm Sunday and it takes much to organise going to our village."

Father Thabet is hopeful for the future: "This year we are waiting to return back to our place and we hope we can celebrate the full Easter next year in Karamles."

Iraq is number 7 on the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List. Open Doors has been working with local partners and churches in Iraq for over 20 years to support the church through training, crisis relief, community development projects, and distributing Bibles and Christian literature. Open Doors local partners have provided vital aid for tens of thousands of displaced families, and are working to provide long-term support to displaced Christians as they begin to rebuild their lives, including helping families who wish to return to the Nineveh plain to rebuild their homes, and starting small businesses to give people the dignity of supporting their own families.

Open Doors has launched the Hope for the Middle East campaign, a global, seven-year campaign mobilising Christians around the world to stand with the church in the Middle East. As part of this, Open Doors is asking people to sign the One Million Voices of Hope petition, which will be presented to the UN in December 2017. The petition calls for equality, dignity and responsibility for Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq, the key things Christians and church leaders from these nations have said they want for the future.

Photos of celebration in Qaraqosh:

Photo of celebration in Karamles:


Other photos and larger versions available on request

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Open Doors UK & Ireland is part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians in over 60 countries for over 60 years. Last year it raised approximately $70 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised over £11 million.

Every year Open Doors publishes the World Watch List - a ranking of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. This is produced using detailed information provided by Open Doors co-workers in more than 60 countries, as well as independent experts. Data is gathered on five spheres of life - private, family, community, national and church life- plus a sixth sphere measuring the degree of violence impacting Christians. Persecution in each country is recorded by Open Doors using a point system. Open Doors' research methods and results have been independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom. The 2017 World Watch List accounts for the 12 months ending 31 October 2016.

The Open Doors World Watch List is the only instrument that measures the persecution of Christians annually. Its methodology is designed to track how the exercise of the Christian faith gets squeezed in five distinct areas - private life, family life, community life, national life and church life - as well as covering violence such as rapes, killings and church burnings. Dr. Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, Director of Research at Open Doors International, explains why: "It is possible for persecution to be so intense in all areas of life that Christians fear to witness at all. You may find very low levels of violence as a result, because incidents of violent persecution are often a response to acts of witness."