The advance continues of the Iraqi army to liberate Mosul, second city of Iraq and bulwark of the Islamic State. The Special Forces that assaulted the government complex of the province of Nineveh, the University district, have reached another bridge over the Tigris, called Hurriya. At this point, close to 80% of Mosul has been liberated.
The Jihadists’ counterattacks, last flick of the tail before the capitulation, were quickly repelled by the army. Once the area of Islamic terrorists is liberated it will be imperative to bring back the conditions for peaceful inter-religious coexistence. The Christian community is almost completely extinct: in 2003, before the U.S. invasion, the Christians of the Archdiocese numbered 35,000; in 2004 they were reduced to 3,000 and today, after ISIS’ aggression, they are truly a meager presence.
ZENIT spoke with Archbishop Emil Shimoun Nona about the future of this land. In 2010 he was called to take charge of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Mosul, becoming the youngest Archbishop of the Catholic Church. Today, he is Archbishop Emeritus and Bishop of the Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle of Sydney of the Chaldeans. In Australia there are very many Iraqi Christian refugees, but Archbishop Nona also keeps telephonic contacts with other families scattered in other areas of the planet.
ZENIT: Excellency, in these hours, have you been able to discern the state of mind of the native Christians of Mosul?
Archbishop Nona: The Christians of Mosul that are dispersed in the whole world and some also in Iraq, are waiting anxiously for the Iraqi army to conclude the liberation of the plain of Nineveh and the city of Mosul. After the liberation of some Christian villages, they discovered what ISIS did to our land: it destroyed almost all the churches and the majority of the properties of Christians were ruined. The infrastructures of this area virtually don’t exist anymore. Moreover, strong perplexities remain about how it will be possible to govern this province once ISIS is ousted, I mean to say from the political and economic point of view and of ethnic and religious coexistence. There are several national and also international interests that influence this objective. Hence, Christians are looking at the future of this historically Christian area with very little confidence.
ZENIT: In any case, however, have the refugees imagined that they would return to live in Mosul?
Archbishop Nona: I don’t think Christians imagined that they would return. It is necessary to create the adequate conditions for a fitting life, guaranteeing human rights. Speaking frankly, there are not many Christians of Mosul in Iraq now. A good part of them have now emigrated beyond the borders; there is the desire to create a new life for themselves after having endured persecution in their own country. The Christians of Mosul, refugees in Iraq, are a small group. They have been suffering persecutions since 2003, they endured for years, but the conquest of the city by ISIS was a decisive blow that induced the majority to flee.
ZENIT: There is talk of close to 100 places of worship damaged or demolished by ISIS in Mosul. Is it possible to create a new Christian identity there?
Archbishop Nona: The heart weeps; the churches represent the sign of our history and of our participation in the Oriental civilization of Iraq. The Christian identity exists in every place in which there are disciples of Jesus Christ. It is not given by buildings but by men. Hence the answer is yes; it will be possible to recreate again a Christian identity in Mosul. The problem, as I said before, is that at present Christians and their churches are lacking in Mosul. If in the future there is the possibility to return, we will certainly be able to create again a Christian identity.
ZENIT: Will it also be possible to re-establish a peaceful coexistence and a relationship of trust with the Muslims?
Archbishop Nona: I must confess that it won’t be easy to return to a peaceful coexistence with the Muslims in those areas. Unfortunately, ISIS enjoyed the support of the civil society: many collaborated with the Jihadists in their actions against the Christians; others even took part in the sacking of our homes. A profound wound was created in the spirit of Christians. The only condition to create coexistence would be the presence of a strong Iraqi State, able to defend the rights of all, able to guarantee an education hostile to the formation of a terrorist mentality.
ZENIT: What future do you imagine for Iraq? Patriarch Sako requested in a letter that “Iraqi national unity” be protected …
Archbishop Nona: I am sincerely unable to imagine what the future will be for Iraq, because its situation is very dramatic and complicated. After 2003, Iraq was destroyed as a unitary and, in a certain sense, also a secular State. However, the conditions of this debacle were created before that date, by mistaken political policies. The only hope stems from the history of this land: every time that Iraq has fallen, it has been able to raise itself up again. Let’s hope that also this time it will be able to begin again as a democratic and free state.