VATICAN CITY — Father Ghazwan Yousif Baho had the option to stay in Italy when he recently accompanied an elderly Iraqi couple to an audience with Pope Francis.
But he has decided to go back because he can’t leave his people.
“One of them told me, ‘Father, I saw you always from afar; but this week I found out who you are, and it has given me so much strength (to know) that you are a priest in the middle of your people,’” he told CNA Oct. 4. “Sometimes I thought about leaving Iraq, but now I say, ‘I don’t leave my village anymore.’”
Father Baho is the parish priest in Alqosh, Iraq, as well as a guest professor at the Pontifical Urbanianum University in Rome, where he teaches two months out of the year. While in Rome, he also serves as pastor in the city’s Sts. Joachim and Ann Parish.
He was present in Rome to accompany Mubarack and Agnese Hano to the meeting Pope Francis held with the elderly and grandparents on Sept. 28. He will return to Alqosh, which sits only 10 kilometers — around six miles — from the ISIS-controlled city of Qaraqosh, this weekend.
The militant Sunni Islamist organization was among the rebels fighting in the Syrian civil war. In June, it spread its operations to Iraq, taking control of Mosul and swaths of territory in the country’s north and west, as well as in northern Syria.
It has now declared a caliphate, which is defined as an Islamic state controlled by a religious and political leader known as a caliph or “successor” to Muhammad. In Syria on Aug. 13, the ISIS group seized a string of towns located northeast of Aleppo and near the Turkish border, including Akhtarin. On Aug. 11, it had seized the Iraqi town of Jalawla, located 90 miles northeast of Baghdad in Diyala province.
All non-Sunni persons have been persecuted by the Islamic State — tens of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims have fled the territory.
Since the night of Aug. 6, when ISIS forces entered the city of Qaraqosh, formerly referred to as the Christian capital of Iraq, many have fled and are living in tents as refugees in camps, the priest noted.
Despite having lived in these circumstances for two months, many have maintained a strong faith, he explained.
“I’ve met very few people who had lost faith and hope. So many suffered, so the Sorrowful Mysteries for us [are] a daily act. But despite all this suffering, I’ve seen very few people who’ve lost the faith.”
When ISIS attacked the city of Mosul, 40 kilometers from Alqosh, many lost everything, including their homes, their jobs, their money and even their wedding rings, which militants would take from persons fleeing the city.
However, when he met with families, “they would tell me ‘Father, we are safe, and all our children are with us. The rest will come later. But we thank God that the Lord has saved us. We have lost everything, but we are saved.’”
“I heard this phrase from so many people. Desperate, but they never lost their faith. And these Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary for us are a daily reality, but they also give us the strength to keep going.”
Father Baho then recalled how he and a few of the others who had fled the city as ISIS approached the nearby Qaraqosh area returned after a week to ring the bells of their parish, which had been silent since the Aug. 6 attack.
“After a week of this silence of all the bells of the churches on the plains of Nineveh ... with a group of guys from the parish, we challenged the fear, and we went (back) into the village.”
The priest, along with 20 or 30 people who were on guard that night, entered Alqosh again on Sept. 15, where they rang the bells of the parish once again and celebrated Mass.
“For me, that Mass was a culmination of Christian faith; and with so much pain, with so much fear, we finished the Mass and we returned back to the Kurdish area,” Father Baho said.
On the way back, the priest said he saw one young man who was with him when he initially fled.
This young man was the one who told him: “Father, I saw you always from afar; but this week I found out who you are, and it has given me so much strength (to know) that you are a priest in the middle of your people.”
The priest also said he had written to his fellow priest from his parish in Rome about what they were planning to do: “Today, I need to ring the bells that for a week haven’t sounded. I have to do this; even if it’s the last time the bells ring, I will do it.”
As they were entering Alqosh to celebrate the Mass, the priest recounted how one young man told him, “Father, today, we see you a little stronger.” Referring to how his fellow priest had promised to pray a Rosary for them, he responded,“Yes, there are people who pray for us, even if they are far; they are united to us in prayer.”
“For me, this was the day of salvation. From there, the people began to have more hope. Different families returned to the city. Also, the war is 10 kilometers from the city, but the people returned. So when I return, I’ll go there, to the parish, next week,” he said.
In his homily during the Mass, Father Baho explained how oftentimes we seek miracles in order to know whether or not God is with us, explaining that the great miracle happened for them when more than 100,000 people escaped at the same time and all managed to get out “sane and safe.”
“It was an exodus, exactly an exodus: the third exodus here. The Lord is truly with us. This is a true miracle,” the priest continued, observing how when they all fled from Nineveh around 10pm the only things visible were the lights of the other cars.
“If you can imagine 100,000 people leaving together and not even an accident happens, this is a true miracle.”
Many who attended the courageous Mass in Alqosh filmed the event, the video of which was presented to Pope Francis by Father Baho and the Hano couple during their encounter with him in his audience with the elderly.
“This also gave us strength: He made us feel that he is very close to us, and he has said many times, and he said it that day, ‘I am always close to you. I hear your sufferings, and I am united with you in prayer,’” the priest explained.
The sounding of the Alqosh church bells in St. Peter’s Square in front of the more than 4,000 people present that day, as well as their broadcast to millions throughout the world, gave witness to the Christian presence in Iraq for more than 2,000 years, the priest said.
“So that voice that they wanted to silence rang out even stronger. And this also gave hope.”