If Pope Francis and US President Donald Trump are ever going to make common cause regarding the “protection of Christian communities in the Middle East”—a topic the two men discussed in their May meeting—the time is now. Many thousands of Christian families, stranded in Kurdistan, long to return to their homes and communities on the Nineveh Plains, newly liberated from the grip of ISIS. However, Church-based agencies alone cannot muster the logistics and major funding that are needed for the reconstruction of the nine Christian towns and villages and the guarantee of the security of its residents. This is the time the two leaders can work together and accomplish a major feat: the survival of Christianity in Iraq. Aid to the Church in Need reports.
Iraqi Christians are racing against time
If they don’t soon reclaim their homes on the Nineveh Plains, Christianity in Iraq will be at grave risk
By Joop Koopman
BEFORE ISIS swept across the Nineveh Plains in the summer of 2014, driving more than 100,000 Christians into exile in Kurdistan, some 5,000 Syriac-Catholic families made their homes on ancient ancestral land in the town of Qaraqosh.
More than half of those families have school-age children, and international agencies have repaired a significant amount of the damage done to schools during the ISIS occupation. Schools are ready to welcome students to the new academic year. But the great challenge is that many of the families’ homes still await repair or rebuilding. To-date, only 600 out of the 5000 families ousted from Qaraqosh have been able to move back into their homes in Qaraqosh.
Syriac-Catholic Father Georges Jahola, who represents his Church on the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC) and oversees reconstruction work in Qaraqosh, put it bluntly: “if their homes are not ready for families to move back in by September and the start of the school year, many of the Christians might well decide to go elsewhere—this time leaving Iraq for good.”
The enormous challenge at-hand prompted ACN to establish the Committee, which is comprised of six members representing the three main Churches whose faithful have roots on the Nineveh Plains: the Syriac-Catholic Church, the Syriac-Orthodox Church, and the Chaldean Church joining forces in an historic first. Funds raised by the committee will be distributed according to the needs of each of the particular communities.
ACN Has funded the repair of close to 160 home to-date. Overall numbers remain dangerously low; for example, in the town of Bartella, just 24 Syriac-Orthodox families have returned to their former homes, while more than 600 families have not been able or willing to make the move back to that community yet. Bartella was home to 3400 families before the community was captured by ISIS, who proceeded to completely destroy 90 of the homes, while another 360 houses suffered severe fire damage and 1300 residences need various significant repairs.
Not that there isn’t optimism and passion on the part of many Christians. Nohe Ishaq Sliman, who just returned to his home in Bartella, said “this is our city, our life, our history. In Kurdistan, we were confronted with very tough economic conditions; food and rent there are very expensive and I can no longer afford that cost while I have a home that I own here. I urge all families from Bartella to come home again.” He continued: “I have drunk the water from the Tigris and worked here as a farmer. I built this house myself. How can I abandon it?”
Still, close to 13,000 homes across the Nineveh Plains remain to be repaired or rebuilt, not to mention the major work that needs to be done throughout the region to restore the water and electricity supply. The Nineveh Reconstruction Committee has carefully assessed damages across the board and estimates that the repair and rebuilding of private homes alone requires some $250M in funding.
In addition, there are close to 350 churches and Church properties—schools, convents, cemeteries—that require varying degrees of repair, rebuilding and refurbishing. In addition, there are 140 public properties—primarily schools but also several hospitals—that require significant investment to become fully functional again. Meanwhile, some 90,000 Christians are still living in make-shift conditions as IDPs in Kurdistan, a state of limbo that has lasted three years. ACN alone has spent more than $35M in humanitarian aid for the IDPs there since the summer of 2014, and obviously that flow of aid must somehow continue until the resettlement of the Nineveh Plains is complete.
Beyond the work of reconstruction on the Plains there are significant security concerns. ISIS may be largely ousted from Iraq, but Sunni-Shiite tension remains and may burst into renewed violence, putting Christians and other minorities in harm’s way once again. There is also the risk that Baghdad and Kurdistan may clash on the Nineveh Plains if the Kurdish Regional Government declares its dependence and secedes from Iraq.
With the end of summer in sight, schools on the Nineveh Plains beckon families and their children as does the prospect of new life marked by peace and stability. However, Western powers must make a major contribution to make the Christians’ hopes a reality.
“Christians and other religious minorities count on the Western governments—and the US in particular,” ACNUSA Chairman George Marlin wrote last week for the National Review Online (Aug. 2, 2017), “not only to help fund the reconstruction of the Nineveh Plains but also to use their powers and influence to get both Baghdad and Kurdistan to guarantee the security of all minorities and to ensure their equality of citizenship, including their property rights and freedom of worship.”
Failing that, a dark history will repeat itself. “The West must act now,” Marlin insisted, adding: “For if a significant number of Christians does not return to the Nineveh Plains very soon, and the power vacuum persists into 2018, the hopes for an enduring renaissance of Christianity in Iraq may be dashed forever.”
To-date ACN has spent approximately $620,000 on the reconstruction of Christian family homes in eight towns on the Nineveh plains, as well as the repair and refurnishing of a convent of Dominican Sisters in Qaraqosh and the reconstruction of St. George’s Church serving Chaldean faithful in the town of Teleskuf. Meanwhile, ACN is spending some $1M to pay rent for IDP families remaining in Erbil from July through September 2017, plus an additional $700,000 on food aid for the families, covering their needs through August 2017.
Joop Koopman is communications director for Aid to the Church in Need-USA, an international papal charity supporting persecuted and suffering Christians around the world.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international papal charity, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org(AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)