Iraqi women rebuilding their lives after ISIS occupation were invited to a three-day gathering aimed, according to organizers, at empowering Christian women and offering them spiritual support.
Held April 27-29 in Qaraqosh ,the event drew inspiration from the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, added recently to the Church's calendar by Pope Francis.
The event was meant to "rebuild women in the spiritual side, in the biblical side and in the psychological side," Fr. Roni Momika told CNA April 30.
Momika, who was ordained a priest in a refugee camp after fleeing Qaraqosh when ISIS took over in 2014, leads a weekly women's group at St. Ephraim church in Qaraqosh, which was burned and vandalized by ISIS but which has slowly started functioning as a normal parish again.
"This meeting is to empower women," he said.
In comments to CNA after a separate women's event earlier this year, Momika said he has focused on supporting women "because they are the base of the community."
"The situation here in Qaraqosh is still difficult because the houses are still burned and destroyed," he said, adding that rebuilding is currently a slow process due to the extensive damage and a lack of funding.
"Everything is difficult here and we want to rebuild the woman before we rebuild the houses," he said.
"If you rebuild the woman, you can rebuild the children, and when you rebuild the children, you can rebuild the family, and after that we can rebuild the community here in Qaraqosh," he said.
In his comments April 30, Momika said the Church in Qaraqosh wants "to allow women to trust in themselves."
Momika's regular women's group draws some 800 attendees weekly. He estimates that as many as 4,500 people, including children, attended some part of the larger April meeting.
Qaraqosh, formerly known as the Christian capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, had a population of nearly 50,000 before ISIS attacked in 2014, prompting the majority of inhabitants to flee in a single night. Most ended up living in crowded refugee camps in Erbil.
According to Momika, some 20,000 people have returned since the city was liberated in 2016, most of whom belong to the Syriac Catholic rite.
Many of these families are trying to establish a new normal in their lives, from the practical to the spiritual.
The decision to hold the recent meeting, Momika said, came after Pope Francis announced his decision to establish the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church.
The program featured lectures, videos, Mass and community time.
A special icon of Mary was written for the occasion, which was done by a local artist who dressed the Virgin in the traditional clothes of women from Qaraqosh.
On the final day of the gathering, Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Kirkuk and Kurdistan, Youhanna Boutros Moshe, celebrated Mass and led attendees in a procession to the city's cathedral, Iraq's largest church and the principal church of the Syriac-Catholic rite.
Looking at pictures of the gathering, "all the women are laughing and they are happy because it is the first time we are doing this [meeting] in Qaraqosh" since the city's liberation, Momika said.
"We want to send a message that ISIS burned the stone but they cannot burn the soul and they cannot burn Christianity and our faith," he added. "Our faith is big [in] our Jesus Christ and his Mother, the Virgin Mary. This is the message."