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In northern Iraq, Christmas joy is tempered by concerns
"The refugees know that Christians from other countries have kept them alive."
By Mónica Zorita
This year, Christian refugees in the northern part of Iraq are twice as excited to celebrate the birth of Christ. This is because the vast majority of the villages on the Nineveh plains, which had been under occupation by the “Islamic State” (IS) since the summer of 2014, have now been liberated. At the time, 120,000 people fled the advancing jihadist threat; they found shelter in the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil, in Kurdistan.
“When we received the news that IS was retreating, a spontaneous celebration broke out in the refugee camps. The people went out into the streets to dance and sing, as though they did not have any other problems in their lives.” These are the words of Father Luis Montes, episcopal vicar of the Latin bishop for Kurdistan.
However, the missionary belonging to the Institute of the Incarnate Word told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need said that many obstacles remain before the refugees can return to their homes. He said: “Approximately 60 percent of the homes on the Nineveh plain were burned down. The terrorists not only seized all of their belongings, they also riddled the region with land mines,” and even hiding explosives in children’s toys.
Nonetheless, the priest added that the people “have not lost the hope of being able to return to their homes. They envision themselves living back in their houses, receiving friends and relatives there. Because hospitality is very important to them. Despite everything, Iraqis have lost neither their smiles nor their hope.” The missionary added: “It is easy being a pastor here because they really live what they say. To talk about forgiveness with them is easy because they forgive without bearing a grudge. They are what gives us strength.”
Meanwhile, aid organizations are keeping the people going, remembering the refugees in a particular way at Christmas time. “It’s impressive to look into the faces of the children when they see the presents. Not only because of the things in and of themselves, but because people who live very far away were thinking of them,” said Father Montes.
Blankets are currently in huge demand, because the walls of the prefabricated barracks in the refugee camps are very thin—too thin to keep out freezing temperatures of winter. It’s below freezing pretty much every day in winter, a sharp contrast with 100-plus degree temperatures in summer. People in the West tend to think it is hot in Iraq year-round, but that is far from the truth.
Father Montes said that the refugees “know that Christians from other countries have kept them alive,” adding that “they always pray for their benefactors.” Nevertheless, the priest stressed that the international community should not forget Iraq once the Islamic State has been defeated. “This country needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. The people have lost everything,” he said.
Father Montes; ACN photo