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Stephanie SaldañaOctober 06, 2023
Mourners react as they attend a Sept. 28, 2023, funeral Mass at the Grand Immaculate Church in Hamdaniya, Iraq, (also known as Qaraqosh or Al-Hamdaniya), following a fatal fire during a wedding celebration. A lit flare set the packed Haitham Royal Wedding Hall on fire Sept. 26, killing more than 100 people and injuring some 150 others. According to an Al Jazeera story, authorities said later the blaze began when a firework display was lit inside the hall to mark the newlywed couple's first dance. (OSV News photo/Ahmed Saad, Reuters)

The Book of Ecclesiastes promises us that there are seasons in life, a time for everything under the sun. “A time to weep, and a time to laugh/ A time to mourn and a time to dance.”

In the past week, I have tried to make sense of where God is when there is no season between the two, when laughing turns to weeping in an instant, when dancing turns to mourning.

On September 26, a fire swept through a wedding hall in Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plains of Iraq just as the bride and groom were starting the first dance of their married life. As flames began to rain down from the ceiling, the nearly 900 wedding guests tried to escape. When the fire had quieted, over 100 hundred people were dead and over 150 more injured. As I write this, more than a week after the fire, news has been emerging every day of still more people succumbing to their wounds. Women and children, husbands and wives, grandparents, neighbors. The bride lost both of her parents. It is a tragedy almost beyond imagining.

Though the magazine layout had been planned months before, the fire took place around the same time that America published a piece I wrote on Qaraqosh. It tells the story of a woman named Hana, a refugee from Qaraqosh who escaped ISIS with her family when they invaded the town in 2014, on the feast of the Transfiguration.

When she knew that she could never return home again, Hana sewed the story of her city into a dress. Through the colorful images on Hana’s dress, we learn about the Qaraqosh she grew up in: a city of around 50,000 Christians before 2014 whose inhabitants still speak Aramaic. It is a remarkable town, full of history—the bonfire they set before the Church of al-Tahira on Christmas, their Palm Sunday procession, where thousands of men and women march through the streets singing. Hana even sewed a wedding dance at the center of her dress, a line of women and men, old and young, holding hands, a reminder of how weddings were occasions for joy.

When ISIS invaded Qaraqosh in 2014, nearly the entire population of the town escaped in a single day, including Hana and her family, emptying out one of the most ancient Christian towns in the Middle East. About half of those who escaped became refugees, leaving Iraq entirely and resettling in countries all over the world, especially in Australia. But once ISIS was defeated in 2016, the other half of the inhabitants of Qaraqosh returned to their town, trying their best to start over in the face of fear and trauma. Churches like al-Tahira and Mar Bahnam and Sara, which had been burnt by ISIS, were restored. Children returned to school. The dialect of Aramaic that they spoke remained alive. Pope Francis came to visit during the heart of the pandemic. For many people, Qaraqosh became a story of hope against hope, a small community who managed to stay—even as Iraq has lost some 80 percent of its Christians since 2003.

But what now? It is hard to process that almost all of the people who attended that wedding had once been displaced by ISIS only to return to tragedy; that the wedding itself was an act of courage, a decision by a young couple to still choose joy in the face of difficulty. I know many people from Qaraqosh, and so I have some idea of what it means when a tragedy that massive takes place in a town so small. Everyone lost family, friends or neighbors. No one in Qaraqosh is untouched by this. I think of the image of the wedding dance at the heart of Hana’s dress, with people of all generations holding hands, all of them connected.

I myself am Syriac Catholic, like the majority of those who live in Qaraqosh. My husband is a Syriac Catholic priest in the Holy Land, where we live with our family. Our entire Syriac Catholic Church is in mourning—all over the world. Thousands of people originally from Qaraqosh are now living in countries across the globe, all grieving. Yesterday I went to light a candle in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. There I found two nuns from Qaraqosh and a few pilgrims from Qaraqosh who had been resettled in Sweden. All of them were weeping.

Our entire Syriac Catholic Church is in mourning—all over the world.

And as for Hana, whom you may feel you know through the dress she sewed and shared: Yes, she lost family and neighbors, too.

Sometimes the aftershocks of war feel even more cruel than war itself. An earthquake in Turkey and Syria that killed some 50,000 people, many of them Syrian refugees; the ferry sinking in Mosul in 2019 in which some 100 people drowned. It is in those moments of crisis that it becomes painfully clear how many doctors left during the war, leaving hospitals understaffed; or how much the infrastructure no longer functions, and political instability prevails. War does not finish overnight. Those who escape war know well that if they do not return, it is not only because they are afraid of bombs, but because even when the bombs are over, the ferry might still sink, the wedding hall might catch fire. It feels especially cruel that those churches that were set on fire by ISIS and so painstakingly restored in the aftermath of war are now filling up with mourners and caskets for the funerals of the dead.

In the face of this, it is perhaps possible only to see and to pray, but this is essential. It is bearing witness to the pain of others, and so to the presence of Christ in the world. Hana taught me, through her dress, how to see Qaraqosh. It is because of that seeing that I eventually came to know that town and its people, to love it, to visit it and now to mourn it. I ask of you to take a moment to look at her dress, to enter into that town on the other side of the world and to see it, too.

Read next:What ISIS couldn’t take: The place and faith Iraq’s Christian refugees carried with them

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