Pope Francis' visit to Qaraqosh, referred to as Iraq’s Christian capital, will encourage members of the country’s oldest faith to return to their homes after being driven out by ISIS.
Qaraqosh, a town also known as Hamdaniya, lies east of Mosul in the Nineveh plain. It fell to the insurgents in 2014, pushing its 50,000 residents to seek refuge in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region and other neighbouring states.
"The visit to Qaraqosh will be a sign of solidarity with all Christians in the Nineveh plain and will encourage people to return to their villages with hope for a better future," Auxiliary Bishop Basel Yaldo of Baghdad, who is the Catholic Church's general co-ordinator for the trip, told The National.
Preparations are well under way for the Pope's visit, including a newly crafted statue of the Virgin Mary placed on top of the Immaculate Conception Church in Qaraqosh.
During his trip, Pope Francis will take a helicopter from Mosul to Qaraqosh, where he will visit the community at the church, which is the biggest in the Nineveh plain and was once the heart of Christian worship in the town before being burned by ISIS and subsequently restored.
Most of the Christians in Nineveh are descendants of the Assyrians whose empire spread across Iraq more than 3,000 years ago. They have always felt a strong link to the land that is today Iraq.
The country once hosted around 4 million Christians but years of wars, conflict and economic hardship have eroded their status.
The Christian population shrank to about 500,000 following the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein and again after the onslaught of ISIS in 2014. It is not known exactly how many Christians now remain in Iraq.
ISIS deliberately targeted Christians in Nineveh, giving them an ultimatum – either they convert to Islam, pay a special tax or risk execution. As a result, thousands of families fled the area.
The insurgents spent two years destroying all signs of Christianity in the town, burning churches, smashing statues, and all other reminders of this once-thriving community.
Hundreds of ancient Assyrian artefacts were also destroyed in the process. "Signs of looting and devastation were evident everywhere when some people began returning," local priest Father Paul Thabit Mekko said.
In 2016, Qaraqosh was liberated by the Iraqi army but residents are still hesitant to return due to ongoing security concerns and lack of livelihood opportunities.