Ibtisam Habib Gorgis, Franciscan Missionary Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, born in Qaraqosh, Iraq, recounts her vocation and the impact of Pope Francis’ apostolic visit in 2021.
By Roberto Cetera – Jerusalem
Ibtisam Habib Gorgis is an Iraqi nun who belongs to the Congregation of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We meet her in Jerusalem, where she stays for a short time to do spiritual exercises.
She has an infectious smile, fluent speech, and a face that radiates serenity and inner peace, despite the atrocities the war in her country has forced her to witness.
“I was born and raised in Qaraqosh”, an Assyrian city in northern Iraq, just 30 km from Mosul and near the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh. The dialect spoken there is a derivation of Aramaic.
“We speak the language of Jesus,” she says proudly, but she also speaks fluent and correct Italian, which she learned during her novitiate years. Qaraqosh is a small Christian enclave in northern Iraq, with both Assyrian and Chaldean traditions, but, she says, “we have always lived in peace and mutual respect with our Muslim neighbours.”
Q: How come an Iraqi girl decides to become a nun?
In truth, I had never thought of it, because although living in a patriarchal and traditional environment, I have always been very independent. I am very jealous of my freedom. Even now (laughs) that I wear this veil.
Q: So how did it go?
I frequented the Catholic group of university students, where I studied biology. At that time, I must say, we didn’t live badly: after the first Gulf War, we were isolated from the world, we didn’t understand what was happening outside our borders, but we lived in peace.
Tāreq ‘Azīz, the foreign minister — who was actually prime minister — was a Chaldean Christian and came from Tel Keppe, which is very close to Qaraqosh. There was one thing that I really liked about my involvement with young Catholics: helping the poor. I found pleasure in doing good. It wasn’t self-serving gratification; on the contrary, it gave me an inner peace, it gave me back the truest meaning of humanity: to live with others and for others.
But I still couldn’t find a place where I could fully blossom. A Franciscan friar came to visit us. I was deeply impressed; I read the life of Saint Francis and a little light came on in my heart. Then two Italian nuns came and invited me to visit their convent in Jordan. At that time, I was at what is called marriageable age, but… but I wanted to be free. When my family sensed that I was looking elsewhere, they weren’t happy.
“She’s my daughter, not yours,” my father said to the nuns on the doorstep, barring them from entering. Finally, after much insistence, he gave in and let me go to Jordan. My uncle accompanied me on the trip, which lasted 18 hours because of the embargo to which our country was subject.
Entry (into the Congregation) was not easy; I didn’t understand the language very well, I had to learn Italian, the nuns followed the Syriac rite and not Latin, so I didn’t understand anything about mass, lauds or vespers, and above all, it was a way of life I did not know.
The point of no return, which may seem silly, is when they cut my hair; a real break with my life before. But despite all the difficulties to overcome, I felt a growing inner peace. Changes in life usually create restlessness, anxiety; but this change, although so radical, on the other hand awakened in me such peace.
We were four girls from Qaraqosh, and that was a comfort to me; there was someone I could at least talk to and be understood. After nine months, they allowed me to go home and see my parents, then they sent me to Italy to do my novitiate.
Q: Did you return to the Middle East afterwards?
Yes. I was first sent to the Holy Land, to Bethlehem and Nazareth, then to Baghdad, where for three years I worked on the education front.
All this until that terrible August 6, 2014. I was in my hometown. Daesh (so-called Islamic State) had entered the Nineveh region. There was no more water or light in the houses. Then we heard an explosion. A house on the outskirts had been hit by a missile. We rushed there and found nothing but rubble and corpses. After the dead were buried, the grand theft began.
Fifty thousand people, without religious or political distinction, left their homes and the city. The horror stories reaching us from areas already occupied by Daesh leave no choice but to flee. Upon entering Qaraqosh, Daesh should have found no one. We have used all means to help as many people as possible to escape. From the entire Nineveh region, 120,000 people headed for Kurdistan.
We sisters stayed until the end, partly to help the displaced people and partly because we didn’t know where to go. We slept in the streets to be ready to flee. Then the bishop ordered us to leave. We were the last to leave Qaraqosh. We left around 2 p.m., and at 5 a.m. the first Daesh troops occupied the city. When the militiamen entered a city, they gave three options: either you become a Muslim, or you pay us, or we kill you. Almost every family has a deceased person to mourn. A quarter of the houses were set on fire, all ransacked and the churches destroyed.
We have worked with the entire Catholic Church to help displaced people, who have lived for months in tents or in makeshift homes. Then we were sent back to the Holy Land, crossing the Jordanian border. It was a night that lasted more than two years. Qaraqosh was liberated on October 19, 2016, with the Battle of Mosul. After this date, some of the locals began to return. But many, especially those who had taken refuge abroad, never returned. Today the situation is still painful, reconstruction is slow, there is no work, there is so much poverty.
Q: And what are you doing today, Sister Ibtisam?
Today I am back in my country. Together with two sisters, I run a kindergarten with over 500 children.
The visit of Pope Francis last year was a fundamental step in our experience. He gave us a breath of fresh air; for the first time in years, we felt that there was someone who really cared about us, someone who loved us. He made us feel that we are of precious value to the Church. We are alive and we have faith.
He made us feel proud to be close to those who practice other religions, with Muslims who had also fled the atrocities of Daesh like us. It was only when we saw and touched Pope Francis in this country, here beside us, that we realized it was over. It was really over, and now we can turn the page.
Pope Francis did not just “visit”; he gave us life.