More than 1,700 young people from all corners of Iraq are converging for the largest Christian youth festival of its kind to be held in the country.
The three-day Ankawa Youth Meeting (AYM) starts today (Thursday, 1st September), with youth from as far afield as Zakho, in the far north, Basra in the extreme south-east and Sulaymaniyah close to Iraq’s eastern border.
Sponsored by organisations including Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the youth festival staged near Erbil in the Kurdish north of Iraq, includes Mass, Confession, retreats, seminars, debate, catechesis and other Christian education.
With 1,500 participants registering within eight days and a further 200 and more expected on the day, this year’s AYM is already on course to be the largest of its kind since the initiative started in 2013.
Speaking yesterday (Wednesday, 31st August), event organiser Father Dankha Joola told ACN that the event is critical to the Church’s recovery following the Daesh (ISIS) occupation in Iraq (2014-16), during which Christians, Yazidis and other minorities suffered genocidal violence.
He said: “By gathering in such large numbers, we will be able to say: ‘We are here, we exist, we have a role to play in this country’ – and that is so important when you think about how much we have suffered over the past few years.
“And I want to thank everyone at ACN for helping to make the event happen because, by supporting it, you are encouraging people to stay here and give witness to our faith.
“Yes, we have problems in our country, yes, we have conflict, but we have Jesus Christ. We have a unique culture which we want to keep alive.”
AYM begins with a choral service including ancient hymns and concludes with Mass where the homily will be given by Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, the Apostolic Nuncio to Iraq.
Father Joola, who is vice-chancellor of Catholic University in Erbil, one of the main AYM venues, said the ancient liturgical language of Aramaic, spoken by Jesus Christ, was a draw for the young people attending.
“Especially since COVID, we have seen that what the young people want is prayer, Confession, traditional hymns – it seems Coronavirus has made them more religious, wanting to engage more with the Church.”
AYM will include visits to churches and monasteries for those interested in trying their vocations as priests and Sisters.
The young people will also lead discussions about their hopes for the Church, how Christians should use social media and how the message of Christianity inspires them.