Author: Mayam Yousif Kamil

Foundation and History

The Sultana Al-Salam Church is part of the Syriac Catholic Church, a self-governed sui iuris particular church that is in full communion with the Holy See and the Catholic Church in its entirety. The Syriac Catholic Church uses the West Syriac Rite liturgy and has many practices and rites in common with the Syriac Orthodox Church. Their most recent patriarch is Mar Ignatius Joseph III Jonah, a resident in Beirut, Lebanon who was elected in 2009. The community includes two archdioceses in Iraq, four in Syria, one in Egypt and Sudan, a patriarchal vicariate in Israel and in Turkey and the eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance in the United States and Canada.[1]

“We came from the Mosul Syriac Catholic Diocese to build a church for the Syrian Catholic believers in Ankawa due to the insecure conditions that Iraq has been subjected to since 2003,” said Father Nihad Sabih[2], the priest of Sultana Al-Salam Church. He added that some Syriac Catholic and Orthodox families have started seeking new homes in places such as Erbil for security and stability, due to the persecution, violence, kidnapping and extortion to which these families have been exposed. “We are grateful for the special care of the presidency of the Kurdistan Region, represented by President Massoud Barzani, and for the unlimited support of the Chaldean Diocese of Erbil Ran Bashar Matti Ward and Bishop Rabban,” the father added.[3]

In 2014, in the absence of a church for the Syriac Catholics, the first mass after displacement was given at the Hadiab schoolyard in Erbil. Because of ISIS, and the expulsion of many families, the land was granted by the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil to around 600 families from Qraqosh, and 500 families from Mosul to build a complex including a church, a school, and a big hall for occasions such as weddings, baptisms, funerals. The foundation stone was laid in the same year, and the diocese started to build the main hall, to be followed by a church. Because of the large number of displaced in Erbil (about 100,000 people) and a lack of churches, masses were held in public squares and schools. During this difficult period, the hall and the parish house were completed and a resident priest was appointed.

After that, the bishop decided to use the hall as a temporary church to perform prayers and masses. At first, chairs for the masses were rented. Later on, the building was converted from a hall into a church. It was officially opened in 2015 and continues to be used for all religious and ceremonial occasions. On June 28, 2019, the patriarchate Catholique Syriaque d’Antioche in Lebanon announced the affiliation of this church to the Hadiab Diocese of Erbil and the Kurdistan Region. Erbil was the administrative hub of the Kingdom of Hidyab and one of the earliest and most important centers of Christianity near the Tigris.[4]

The backyard of the church. © Maryam Yousif


[2] Interview with Father Nihad Sabih on 5 March, 2019.

[3] Montaner Haddad laid the foundation stone for the Church for Syriac Catholics in Erbil, on December 23, 2011.

[4] In ancient times, Erbil was also spelled as Arbīl or Irbīl.

Location and Building

The church is situated in the city of Erbil along Bahirka Road near the suburb of Ankawa. It is surrounded by a small playground and gardens and a parking lot. The church site includes the school of St. Irenaeus, used from 2015 until 2017 during the war with ISIS as a primary and secondary school. After the liberation of the Ninawa (Nineveh) Plains that were occupied and controlled by ISIS, the school was closed as half the displaced families returned to their villages and official schools in the area.

The school of St. Irenaeus (2014-2018). © Sultana Parish Erbil

The first thing you notice about the church is the existence of a circular colonnade of concrete pillars inside the courtyard, shading visitors from sun and rain. At the main gate, there is a bell tower bearing a cross (see photo), used on important occasions such as Christmas, Easter and funerals. The church can accommodate 800 to 1,000 people. Nearby is St. Matthew’s, which is the church of the Armenian Orthodox (the Holy Cross Church) and the Chaldean community.[1]. The design of the church is very simple because it was originally designed as a hall, not a church. Icons on the walls serve as illustrations of the faith. These include Mary Visiting Elizabeth, The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold, An Angel of the Lord Appearing to Joseph, The Birth of Jesus, Zacchaeus the Tax Collector and Jesus Sentenced to Death. There are also two statues of Jesus on the front wall and Mary on the side. In the basement is a small hall used for lectures, youth meetings and other activities, plus the sacristy. Behind the altar, there is a cross without the body of Jesus which represents the resurrection of Christ, with the sun radiating to represent the light of Jesus. 

Former hall before its conversion to a church. © Sultana Parish Erbil
The bell tower of the church. © Sultana Parish Erbil         
Jesus statue. © Maryam Yousif

[1] St. Matthew’s Church was not officially opened until 2020.

Prayer and Worship

Masses are held in Arabic, the mother tongue of the participants. These services take place at 6 pm on Sundays and at 10 am on Fridays. The number of attendees differs depending on the occasion, but usually 400 to 500 congregants take part. The number of children present ranges from 30 to 40. Some of the children serve as altar boys or girls with the deacons and wear liturgical clothes. Most services are officiated by the Syriac Catholic bishop, with the church pastor leading the mass. In some cases, visiting priests come from other denominations such as Chaldean Catholic Chruch and Latin monks.   

            The sermon is an important part of the liturgy. Most sermons are spiritual and include vivid stories to reach the listeners and deepen their understanding of the Bible through exhortation. The priest does not favor politically-oriented sermons because he said the church acts like a mother “teacher and educator” and not as a political platform.

            Among the main Christian feasts are Christmas and Easter, as well as other anniversaries of saints such as Ataxia, the feasts of Holy Mary, the Holy Cross, and Pentecost, among others, throughout the year. On such occasions the audience swells to approximately 1,000.

About five to 10 funerals, 40 to 50 baptisms, and 10 to 15 weddings are conducted every year. There are also important occasions such as ordinations of deacons and priests. At Sultana Al-Salam, one candidate was ordained in 2016 (see photo below, of the bishop flanked by two priests), with the hope that there will be more candidates in future.

Ordination of a priest in 2016. © Sultana Parish Erbil

Community and Group Activity

According to the priest, Father Nihad Sabih, church membership included about 800 families in 2019. Due to political and economic instability, most members come from Baghdad; others come from Mosul and areas liberated from ISIS, where the situation is still dire for Christians. Of these 800 families, between 300 and 500 families are actively committed to the work of the parish.

Sultana Al-Salam church has a choir, which includes instructors and musicians. During the period of displacement, there were about 27 members. However, with the return of the displaced people in 2016 to the Nineveh Plains, the choir has shrunk to no more than 10 members. In addition, the priest organizes the Sultana Al-Salam youth meet every Friday, consisting mainly of lectures on spiritual and cultural topics for Christian youth. These young people form a brother and sisterhood group that gathers for religious courses (catechesis). This is usually for the primary and secondary stages – preparation for first communion (10 to 12 years of age), a women’s meeting for spiritual and educational purposes, and training and education such as English language courses. All activities take place in the former St. Ireneaus school.

Charity market in 2016. © Sultana Parish Erbil

In summer, the parish organises a charity market for assisting the poor and the homeless. Parishioners sell food and handmade goods and donate money. The small stadium next to the church is used for family celebrations such as anniversaries, private parties, and other gatherings. These activities are geared toward the elderly and orphans, and take place in Alqosh.

Public Relations

To keep families and young volunteers informed, participants created a Facebook page where news, events, pastoral and other activities are announced. During the Covid pandemic, masses were streamed online for the home audience. The parish priest regularly visits households to build good relations between the people and the church.

            The parishioners of the Sultana Al-Salam Church keep in close contact with the Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean and Assyrian Christians. For example, these parishioners may help to serve at busy confession periods in these other churches, but not in holding masses for other denominations. They also maintain good relations with members of other religions, such as Muslims and Yazidis.