QARAQOSH, Iraq (CNS) — Christians once again filled the streets of Qaraqosh for Palm Sunday: Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, visiting from Beirut, led the procession of more than 20,000 people.

The celebration was a stark contrast to Patriarch Younan’s visit there in November 2016, following Qaraqosh’s liberation from the Islamic State after nearly two years. During that visit, Patriarch Younan spoke of the “ghost town” and celebrated Mass on a makeshift altar in the empty, broken, incinerated Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception.

But on April 10, the patriarch told the faithful during the revived traditional gathering: “I cannot express my joy in words … Bakhdida is ‘the pearl’ of our Syriac Catholic Church. I would not be exaggerating if I said today that it is the heartbeat of this church, not only in Bakhdida, but in Iraq and all the world.”

Qaraqosh, also known as Bakhdida, was once the most populous Christian town in Iraq. In a single night during the summer of 2014, the town’s entire population of some 50,000 Syriac Catholics was forcibly uprooted by Islamic State militants. In all, more than 100,000 Christians were evicted from the Ninevah Plain and Mosul that summer. They fled to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

This year, Patriarch Younan noted that the huge number of participants for the Palm Sunday celebration “expresses the affiliation of our children in Bakhdida to their ancient Syriac Church, which, along the path of its long history, has gone through many trials and persecutions.”

About 60% of Qaraqosh’s 50,000 Syriac Catholic residents have returned from their exile in the Kurdistan region to their homes, which had been destroyed and burned by the terrorists and repaired with the help of Catholic organizations, including the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need and L’oeuvre d’Orient. Many families have emigrated abroad.

During Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq in March 2021, praying the Angelus at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the pontiff told the faithful that “terrorism and death never have the last word.”

Before the Palm Sunday procession, Patriarch Younan celebrated Mass at the church and told the faithful: “We are here in Bakhdida living our faith in hope and complete trust in the Lord, no matter how stormy the storm is … no matter how many challenges, no matter how severe the persecutions are. The people of Bakhdida are called to remain steadfast in their land, no matter what.”

“Today is Palm Sunday, the feast of joy; we all rejoice in Jesus, who came to reign over the hearts of men with peace and love. He rode a simple donkey, not like those who rule and frighten the world with their might.”

During his visit to Iraq, the patriarch also inspected the restoration work at other churches nearly destroyed by Islamic State and inaugurated a church-run nursery.