KAREMLASH, Iraq — An Iraqi priest whose family home was destroyed by ISIS has been consecrated bishop in a church he has spent the past four years restoring.
Chaldean Bishop Thabet Habib Yousif Al Mekko, a popular priest who for many years has dedicated himself to serving the faithful in his native Nineveh Plain town of Karemlash, was consecrated Bishop of Alqosh on Oct. 22 by Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon.
In this Nov. 14 email interview with the Register, Bishop Mekko shares his reaction to his appointment, describes the current challenges facing Christians in northern Iraq four years after liberation from ISIS, and shares his hopes for the beatification of Father Ragheed Ganni and companions, who were martyred in 2007.
Father Ganni, who studied at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, was buried in Karemlash in the church of St. Adday that Bishop Mekko has spent the last few years helping to restore, after it was ransacked by the Islamic State militant group in the mid-2010s.
Bishop Mekko told the Register much still needs to be done to help restore the ancient Christian communities in the region, a major task, he said, that requires the charitable aid of the international community as well as commitment and dedication of the local faithful.
Your Excellency, what is your reaction to the news of your appointment?
Being chosen as bishop was truly surprising, and I was embarrassed because I was very attached to the parish I had been serving. I had many projects there relating to the restoration of the village of Karemlash, as well as many goals, both pastoral and social, to achieve as a priest. However, the call of the Lord triumphed and guided me to give my consent to accept this grace that I do not deserve.
How do you hope to exercise your ministry as a bishop to help local Christians?
Zeal for the Church has been energy-giving for me, so I hope to continue with more strength and zeal proclaiming the word of God and helping my Christian brothers have more confidence in their Christian calling in Iraq. The service I began as a priest aimed to create a means through which faith is integrated with social commitment and fidelity to our Christianity in Iraq.
What is the situation like at the moment in Alqosh?
The Diocese of Alqosh has its own particular challenges. One moves between areas of the diocese through checkpoints that belong to KRG [Kurdish Regional Government] and others manned by the federal government of Baghdad, the PMF [Popular Mobilization Forces of the Iraqi government]. Also, there are destroyed areas that must be reconstructed, and very many continue to be displaced as a result of the former ISIS [occupation].
The political and administrative situation is unclear because of the problems between the KRG and the federal government. Unemployment and young people are without work, so many families have gone away, leaving behind a void and problems that arise from this complicated situation. The government is providing services in accordance with its capabilities, but there are many things they could do better.
How safe are Christians in the region? What are the current challenges they are facing, and how many have returned since the ISIS occupation of 2014-2017? And what is the status of rebuilding churches after their destruction and damage caused by ISIS?
Now the zone is secure, but always there are concerns that an ISIS-type scenario will return. When the federal government of Baghdad has forces in these areas, the security is strengthened, and Christians have more confidence. The problem is when there are Kurdish forces on one side of a Christian village and PMF forces on the other. Concern rises when there is disagreement and confrontation between these two sides.
In the various regions of the diocese that ISIS occupied, 1,500 families have returned — almost 50% of the original number.
In the region of Tellskof, the churches have been restored, but still there is work to do. In Batnaya, where over 80% of the structures had been destroyed, the churches and religious sites have still not been restored; the houses even more so. In the village of Bakofa, the church has still not been rebuilt.
How concerned are you about the rise of the Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups in Afghanistan and the effect it could have on Iraq and the region?
We would hope that the Iraqi government would be alert to the challenges of exporting Islamic militants from Afghanistan to Iraq. If there are concerns about this, they will lessen if the government is strong, and the international community helps it in its war against terrorism.
What is the situation like in your native Karemlash? What is the latest news on the cause of Father Ragheed Ganni, who is buried there? Will a shrine be built in his memory?
Karemlash still has many burned houses and needs restoration work. Families still have to return, and there are concerns about demographic changes there. We are waiting for the beautiful news about the beatification of Father Ragheed and his companions.
In the Church of St. Adday, where tomb of Father Ragheed lies and where the remains and relics of Father Ragheed and his companions are placed in anticipation of them being proclaimed “Blessed,” I have had a chapel constructed. We hope to build a shrine to them. In nearby Qaraqosh is a Chaldean community that Father Ragheed served. He founded a pastoral house there, and today we are building a small church in the town for those faithful. I think this church in Qaraqosh will be a beautiful memorial to him.
What can the faithful do to help you and your work there?
A bishop without priests and the faithful gives his existence no meaning, so the local faithful of the diocese can do a great deal, first of all by receiving the Word of God and enabling the gifts of the Holy Spirit within them in order to serve in the Mystical Body of Christ.
Concerning our faithful brothers in the world, we hope that they help to meet the charitable needs of the diocese in its pastoral work and reconstruction, knowing that their brothers in the Diocese of Alqosh are incapable of ameliorating the harsh situation alone.