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Post-ISIS rebuilding begins on Nineveh plain, Iraq's ancient Christian heartland
"A historic and unrepeatable occasion for the future of Christianity in Iraq."
By Daniele Piccini
NEW YORK—Work has begun on the rebuilding of the first 100 Christian homes on the Nineveh plain, a region devastated by ISIS. To mark the occasion, ceremonies were held in the Christian towns of Bartella, Karamless and Qaraqosh, to inaugurate an initiative that aims to repair and rebuild up to 13,000 homes in Iraq’s ancient Christian heartland.
Father Andrzej Halemba, the head of the Middle East desk for international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN)—which is financing the reconstruction of the 100 homes—described the launch of Nineveh plain rebuilding effort as “a historic and unrepeatable occasion for the future of Christianity in Iraq.”
During the May 8, 2018 ceremonies, each of the owners of the 100 homes was presented with olive trees, to be planted close to their homes as symbols of peace and reconciliation. In attendance were members of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC), which includes representatives of the three main Christian Churches in the region, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church.
The committee was set up earlier this year in order to plan and supervise the reconstruction program that is estimated to cost more than $250M. In a survey conducted by ACN late winter, some 40 percent of the Christian families—representing some 12,000 men, women and children, who fled the Nineveh plain in the summer of 2014, when ISIS captured the region—have indicated that they wish to return to their former homes.
Father Halemba said: “By starting work on these first three reconstruction sites, we are hoping to send a clear signal to the thousands of Christian families who were driven from their homes and who have been living in makeshift conditions in Erbil and other towns of Iraqi Kurdistan.”
He continued: “This is a decisive historical moment. If we now miss the opportunity to help the Christians return to their homes on the Nineveh plane, these families might well decide to leave Iraq forever. That would be an enormous tragedy.
“The presence of the Christians in this region is of vital importance, and not only historically, but also politically and culturally. The Christians represent a bridge of peace between the various Muslim groups that are fighting each other; Christians make a crucial contribution to the educational system and are respected by all moderate Muslims.”
On May 8, 2015 Philipp Ozores, ACN general secretary, presented olive trees to 35 Syrian Orthodox families in the small church of Mor Shmuni in Bartella, where 1,451 houses belonging to Syrian Orthodox families have to be rebuilt. Seventy-five of these were completely destroyed, 278 burned down and 1,098 partially damaged. Water and electricity services could only be restored a few days ago. Following the ceremony in Bartella, dignitaries an officials continued on to attend a ceremony in Karemlash, where 754 houses need to be repaired. Of these, 89 were completely destroyed, 241 were burned down, and 424 were partially damaged. The community's water and electricity supply have just been restored.
The last of the olive tree ceremonies took place in Qaraqosh. Here, 6,327 houses belonging to Syrian Catholic Christians need to be repaired. Of these, 108 houses were completely destroyed. These are in addition to the 400 houses belonging to Syrian Orthodox Christians (of these, only 7 houses were completely destroyed). In Althajra Cathedral, which was set on fire by ISIS so that the smoke would confuse American military aircraft, Mr. Ozores joined Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche of Mosul, Kirkuk and Kurdistan in presenting olive trees to 50 families.
The archbishop said: "We do not want to pay attention to the voices of those who would discourage us because they want to prevent the reconstruction. We stand by our decision to return, despite all the challenges that await us. Christ is our tower of strength that gives us hope. We must persevere, because this is our soil and our heritage."
Mr. Ozores said: "Today, we would like to hold on to this small sign that we are once more at the point of departure – just as in the parable of the mustard seed from the Gospels. But with God’s help and that of our benefactors, we hope that the Nineveh Plains will be able to welcome back the Christians who were forced to flee. We hope that this region may soon become a place of life and peace for all once more.”
By the end of June 2017, ACN—the only international organization to consistently support the Christian exiles from the Nineveh plain since its capture by ISIS—will have spent well over $35M in supporting the 12,000 Christian Internally Displaced People in Kurdistan. Aid has come in the form of monthly food aid, money for rent, medical help, the construction of schools, and the support of displaced clergy and women religious.
The logo of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee; ACN General Secretary Philipp Ozores (l) with Nineveh resident; ACN photo