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 the damage done to schools suffered during the ISIS occupation. The schools are ready to welcome the children to the new academic year. But the great challenge is that many of the families’ homes still await repair or rebuilding.

Syriac-Catholic Father Georges Jahola, who represents his Church on the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC), put it bluntly in an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN): “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.”

Iraq_Aug. 10_2017 Father Georges Jahola.3.jpg

To-date, 600 families have been able to move back into their homes in Qaraqosh; ACN helped establish the NRC so that the Syriac-Catholic, Syriac-Orthodox and the Chaldean Churches could join forces in paving the way for the return of Christians to the nine major Christian towns on the Nineveh Plains. 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.

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. Meanwhile, some 90,000 Christians are still living as IDPs in Kurdistan.

Beyond the work of reconstruction 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.

On the Nineveh Plains, schools 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, “not only to help fund the reconstruction of the Nineveh Plains abut 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 said, 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.

ACN's commitment on both fronts is ongoing.

Father Georges Jahola; ACN photo


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