A 5x13-metre hall with old wooden benches feels rather archaic and too small to be a place of worship, but it is just enough for the Christian community in Baqubah city, Diyala Governorate. Only 12 Christian families remain after years of violence, insurgency, and the ISIL threat in the city.
Um Al Mashurah Al Saliha Church was reopened in January 2019, after a group of Muslim youth volunteers, led by Asia, a young woman who lives in Baqubah, cleaned off the dust and dirt that had accumulated on its altar and benches for 15 years, breathing new life into the church and the community, and new hope for peace and the celebration of diversity in Baqubah.
Asia, now 26, is originally from Baghdad, but has lived in Diyala since 2007 after violence displaced her family from their hometown. She clearly recalls military parades for the black-dressed fighters of the then-called Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in Baqubah, as well as executions.
“I saw horror with my own eyes. Rockets were fired by armed groups from the palm groves into residential areas. Our house burned, people died, and we could not go out in the evening at all,” she explained.
Even as a 13-year-old school girl, Asia knew back then, that one day these armed groups would go, “because no one wanted them. They just terrified people.”
A decade later, Asia is spearheading peacebuilding efforts in Baqubah, as Iraq recovers from the ISIL crisis. Together with a group of youth, she seeks to rebuild trust and social cohesion in her community - with the active participation of women and girls.
“I feel that if we do not achieve peace, the blood of all these heroes [who fought against ISIL] would have been shed for nothing,” said Asia. She added “I believe that we, the youth, have an important role to play here. Opening that church is just part of these efforts, as we can only achieve peace when all groups feel their rights are protected. Christians are Iraqi citizens and need to have their rights protected, including the right to have their own place of worship.”
Diyala was one of the most violent governorates in Iraq in the years leading up to the ISIL takeover of large swathes of Iraqi territory in 2014.
At the height of sectarian violence in Iraq between 2006 and 2007, Al Qaeda in Iraq tightened its grip on Baqubah, announcing the city had become the capital of their Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). The church was closed and many Christian families fled the town to other parts of Iraq or abroad. Only a dozen families remained, although covertly.
At the peak of the sectarian war in Iraq between 2006 and 2007, Al Qaeda in Iraq tightened its grip on Baqubah, announcing the city had become the capital of their Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). The church was closed and many Christian families fled the town to other parts of Iraq or abroad. Only a dozen families remained, although covertly.
ISIL never took control of Baqubah, but the group reached the edge of the city, just as they did in Baghdad before being stopped by the Iraqi forces in 2014. Many people fleeing other parts of Iraq displaced and settled in Diyala Governorate.
Asia’s story with volunteerism and peacebuilding efforts begins with a small handcrafts business she started after finishing her studies in 2015. She sold items online via social media, which made her known to IOM.
The Organization hired her as a handcrafts trainer to train displaced and host community members in its Community Centre in Baqubah as part of social cohesion and peacebuilding activities in Diyala Governorate, funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Asia also took part in IOM’s training on peacebuilding and volunteerism. She started an all-female volunteer group of ten, called Nisaa Halimat (Dreaming Women) in 2018 to work on relief activities for displaced persons and orphaned children, later focusing as well on women’s rights and affairs, awareness campaigns and peacebuilding activities in Diyala.
“The group is all female. This is not to exclude men from our community activities, but to send a message that we can do it too. We can work, we are not weak, we don’t need to be a man to work and achieve something. We want to leave our own imprints on society.”
During one discussion in the IOM Community Centre in Baqubah, Asia wondered why there were no Christian families in Baqubah.
“There are Christians in so many corners of Iraq, and I wondered why Baqubah had none. I was told that there were a few, but that they were marginalized and afraid because of the violence they had been exposed to in Baqubah. No one seemed to know much about them, but there was a church here.”
Asia went to see the church but found it had been closed since 2006. She came back to the community centre with an idea that would contribute to rebuilding trust and relations between the Christian community and the rest of the city: to rehabilitate and reopen the church.
“I knew that would make the Christian families very happy. The Christian community council in Baqubah loved the idea, particularly because Muslim youth were reaching out and helping to reopen a church in Diyala, a governorate that had gone through a lot of sectarian violence. On top of it, all the volunteers were girls!”
Asia recruited her task force from the female volunteers who attended the community centre as well as others working with different non-governmental organizations and armed them with brooms and dusters and buckets of water. She also obtained the approval of the local government and security forces to open the doors of the church.
“Those who participated in the campaign were from everywhere in Diyala, across the ethno-religious groups of the governorate. I don’t want to mention any groups by name because at the end of the day we are all Iraqis and all human beings.”
The group started the cleanup in the church on 1 December 2018 at 6 am. The women worked in the dust, sweating, without taking a break. By 11 pm, the cleaning was finished, and the doors of the church opened. In the following weeks, the group also painted the facade of the church, fixed the electricity and water systems, put up new signs and furnished the service hall.
As a result of all this hard work, the Christian community held its first mass since 2006, on 1 January 2019.
“When the Christian families heard that the church had reopened, everyone was overjoyed; now we can pray and hold services in our own church, in the heart of our own community, among family and friends,” said Rafid Jameel, a member of the Christian community who is also the church guard.
“It was hard for us to live here and see our church collecting dust and dirt. For 15 years it was closed, and no prayers or services were held here. We had to go to Baghdad for church services,” he added.
Asia and her group worked on reopening the church not for money or other gains, but for peace.
“I believe that God created humans and religions came later. When the first mass was held again in the church, I saw the jubilation on the faces of the Christian families. And for me, as a Muslim sitting here, sharing the moment and the religious rituals of which these families were deprived."