Hundreds of jubilant worshippers crowded onto the grounds of the Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church on Palm Sunday, April2, at the start of Holy Week celebrations in this mainly Christian district of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
It marked a stark contrast from only a few years ago, when these same church grounds teamed with vinyl tents to shelter Iraqis Christians who fled for their lives and forced conversion from ISIS militants, who overran their ancestral Christian lands in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains towns in 2014.
Now, children carried on the shoulders of their fathers, the well-dressed elderly and youth in sports gear all waved small, cut olive branches, a symbol of the peace they seek.
"Palm Sunday is the beginning of this week when we celebrate Lord Jesus, his death and Resurrection in our lives. We wish for our children, this new generation, to recognize their Christian heritage and have hope for the future," a Catholic government employee named Sarmeen told OSV News during the ceremony.
There are some positive signs of the hard work Catholic authorities are making to try to see a better future in Iraq, as one of the country's rich mosaic of religious and ethnic minorities. But there are challenges too.
"Our work is to support the community and be ready always to shepherd them," Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda told OSV News at his office in the St. Joseph Cathedral in Ankawa. "They come to the Church looking for financial help, medical support, operations, food, support with civil department problems and any social quarrels," he explained.
"About 80 percent of the people's requests have nothing to do with pastoral issues, but rather social and economic issues. While we are not powerful in numbers ([a reference to Iraq's dwindling Christian presence)] we are influential in the fields of education and health care … and so we can make a difference," the archbishop underscored.
He pointsed to the establishment of the Catholic University of Erbil with 420 students from diverse backgrounds, Maryamana Hospital in Ankawa, five schools and the Ankawa Humanitarian Committee as "anchor institutions" to support and keep the hope alive, encouraging Iraqis to remain in their homeland, one riven with strife for the past two decades. The institutions also provide needed local employment.
The vibrant campus of the Catholic University of Erbil (CUE) pulsates with students from Iraq's diverse mosaic of Christian, Muslim, Yazidis, Kakai and others seeking higher education.
"It was founded in 2015 during the ISIS attack, many came to Irbil and Ankawa as displaced people, we saw that we needed to provide good education and health care. The Italian bishops' conference provided $3.3 million to establish the first building," Father Dankha Joola, a Mosul native and the university's executive vice chancellor for administration, told OSV News.
CUE graduate Hamza Abbas, a Muslim from Diyala, now works in student affairs. "I fell in love with the university, its vision and mission promoting Iraq's diversity and inclusion. I consider my university is the 'Iraq' that everyone wants, peaceful, where everyone loves each other, works and does things together."
"Our generation has suffered a lot, a childhood with wars and sectarian conflicts. Some people will give up, but our generation is the one promoting that we should live together. We want good things for the future in education and many aspects of life," Abbas told OSV News on a campus tour also involving Christian students.
Basma, a Yazidi student of English literature, also is part of the interesting mix. She studied in Sharya camp for displaced Yazidis for seven years and finished high school there.
"My brother randomly found info about CUE on a website; I applied and got in," said Basma, originally from Sinjar. "I hope to get a master's degree abroad and return to Iraq to open a teaching institution," Basma told OSV News.
"It was a must for me to attend CUE because it is a religiously diverse university open to all people in Iraq. We are as a small family. There is no difference here between Yazidis, Muslims, Christians or any other Iraqis. We are students, humans, and share everything together. It's a great thing," she said.
Still, Archbishop Warda points to the challenges that remain in the wider Iraqi social, economic and political spheres that must be overcome for Iraq's religious and ethnic minorities to have hope for the future.
Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that ousted Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Christians numbered around 1.5 million. Two decades later, only an estimated 250,000 remain in the country, analysts say due to years of sectarian violence. The attempted genocide by ISIS of Iraq's religious minorities, especially the Yazidis, in which an estimated 5,000 were killed and many remain displaced, also took its toll on the dwindling Christian population.