Holy Week celebrations this year represent a return to some semblance of normalcy in many places around the world, but in the Nineveh Plains in Iraq, occupied by Daesh (also known as the Islamic State) between 2014-2017, Palm Sunday had special significance.
Thousands of people took part in Sunday’s procession through the streets of Qaraqosh, the largest of the Christian towns in the region that was a victim of the anti-Christian genocide committed by ISIS.
Similar crowds are expected throughout the Holy Week celebrations, including the Liturgy of the Passion of the Lord, the Via Crucis, and the Easter Vigil on Saturday.
Iraqi Father Naim Shoshandy said that “Christians in Iraq are full of hope, joy, excitement, because in the past years, many could not celebrate Holy Week.”
“We started this major week of Christian life in the street, professing our faith in Jesus Christ, with thousands, thousands of people publicly celebrating Palm Sunday,” he told Crux.
In addition to the thousands who have moved back to the city after Daesh was defeated, he said that 50 families returned to Qaraqosh this week, to visit with their families and keep their traditions alive.
Shoshandy is among those who had to flee the country during the worst of the terrorist-led campaign: On March 23, 2014, ISIS murdered his 27-year-old brother for being a Christian. Yet his heart is still in his birthplace. He was supposed to be there this week, but for bureaucratic reasons, he ended up stuck in Spain, his adoptive country.
“To tell the truth, I did not expect that we could experience a Palm Sunday like the one we did,” he said. “I carry suffering in my heart, I was born in war. But I thank God because what we saw on Sunday shows us that Christianity is alive in Iraq, and not only in Qaraqosh, but in the whole Nineveh Plain, in Mosul, in Baghdad.”
“And it gives one joy to be able to serve wholeheartedly these people who live their faith in Jesus Christ and can profess it publicly in the street,” he said. “I really did not think it would be possible to see the images we have seen these days.”
Among those taking part in Sunday’s celebration was Patriarch Raphael Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
“We started this major week of Christian life in the street, professing our faith in Jesus Christ, with thousands, thousands of people publicly celebrating Palm Sunday,” Shoshandy said.
The situation in Mosul, once the second largest city in Iraq, is “very different,” the priest said.
“Many Christians have not yet been able to return: The city is still completely destroyed, and the houses of the Christians are being rebuilt little by little,” he said. “We do not have, as we would usually have, churches that are full. But we have again the great gift of being able to ring the bells, announcing that in our churches the faith is celebrated, something that we could not do for a long time because of Daesh.”
Reflecting on Pope Francis’s historic visit to Iraq in March 2021, Shoshandy said that it has “given a lot of encouragement to the Christians of Iraq. We continue to work so that this martyred church continues to be present, and the visit gave a lot of encouragement to the people, who want to, and for now also can, stay in this country, and give testimony of the faith in Jesus Christ to the whole world.”
He argued that since the pontiff’s visit, many things have changed in the life of Christians in the country, including their relationship with peoples of other faiths – particularly Muslims.
“It was not easy for Christians to go back to their homes, to live in the same place where their own neighbor burned and looted their home,” he said. “I believe that the visit of Pope Francis has helped us heal the huge wound that the violence had left in our hearts. I believe that his visit left something in each one of us, and for this we thank God.”
That is not to say that things being better means it is all fixed: “We are also waiting for the state to change some things, for example, to accept Christians as part of the country and not as foreigners.”
Lastly, he also said that despite the moving images from Sunday, Christians in Iraq are still not safe, despite the police presence in the ceremonies.
“Security is never guaranteed for Christians in this country. But we have the grace of God, as we say, the Lord is with us, he will save us, so we cannot be afraid,” Shoshandy said.
“Instead, we have to live with our trust in the Lord, giving a testimony as Christians, living a life full of peace and love, aware that, as the pope told us so many times, we are all brothers. And we need to be able to live as followers of Jesus, accompanied by the Virgin Mary.”