After years helping rebuild homes and infrastructure, Aid to the Church in Need is issuing an urgent call to the international community to help guarantee peace and stability in Iraq, as necessary conditions for economic development and job creation that will help communities, including Christians, to stay in their homeland.
The appeal was made by Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of ACN, fresh back from a visit to the country.
The past few decades have been very hard on Christians in Iraq. Economic and political uncertainty, coupled with large-scale persecution that culminated in the rise of the Islamic State, led to a massive exodus which reduced the Christian population from over one million to between 150 thousand or 250 thousand today.
But according to Heine-Geldern the current mood is finally one of hope in a brighter future: “When I visited in 2014, everybody was scared with the advance of ISIS, but the mood, and the cooperation and solidarity, were excellent. Then, in 2018, I found the community very depressed. Now, however, there are signs of hope, and many requests to support the development of the country, including Kurdistan and the different villages and towns inhabited by Christians”.
The role of the international community is crucial in helping Iraqi institutions ensure peace, and economic and political stability, and ACN will continue to make sure that Iraqi Christians are not forgotten, said Heine-Geldern during an online press conference hosted by ACN on Monday, 9 May, under the title “Iraq: A time of Christian revival?”
“We will continue to focus on using our experience in advocacy, and our good information network with responsible politicians and leaders around the world, to make sure the situation of Christians in Iraq is not forgotten. We have to ask the international community to support efforts towards security, safety and sustainability. If we cannot guarantee a minimum standard of security, all other efforts to support peace and well-being in Iraq will become very complicated. This has to be a joint effort of the international community. Only when the security situation is relatively stable will people come back and invest in Iraq.”
After years of helping rebuild houses in the Nineveh Plain, and a strong investment in brick and mortar, the charity now plans to focus more on “enabling the local Church to assume its mission by establishing parishes, promoting Church teachings, supporting sisters, different priests and orders in what they are doing, and doing so well and with such enthusiasm”, but also on supporting education: “As we have learned, education is key to considering a sustainable future in this part of the world. Families are more inclined to remain in their villages when they have education”.
The recently inaugurated Al-Tahira secondary school in Qaraqosh, and the students’ scholarships for the Catholic University in Erbil, two projects to which ACN is heavily committed, are examples of this new approach.
John Pontifex, head of press for the British office of ACN, was also in Iraq recently, and confirms the views held by Heine-Geldern. “In March I made my latest and most comprehensive visit to the country. I spoke to bishops, priests, sisters, lay people, young and old. I found a community much changed. I have been following Iraq for 20 years, and this trip showed the most signs of hope”, he said, also during the press conference.
“There was still talk of people wanting to leave, but there were many who sought to stay. One such individual was a young mother called Bushra, who had temporarily left Iraq, but was thrilled to return to her homeland. One of the reasons she came back was because her husband had been able to get a job as a teacher. She is also a primary school teacher. Employment is critical to people’s capacity to return. In some places there is 70% unemployment. If they are to make their future there it will be because they were able to get a Job. This is critical in terms of finding a way forward.”
“We have done so much as a charity to help in other areas, like housing, and community centres, that this issue of employment is one of the major missing building blocks of recovery. But for many, if they are to get a job, education is key.”
A heart that still beats
When Islamic State militants overran Mosul and then the Nineveh Plains, Patriarch Louis Sako, of Iraq’s largest Christian denomination, the Chaldean Catholic Church, said he feared that the heart of the Iraqi Christians would stop beating, recalls Regina Lynch, head of projects at ACN International, who also spoke at the ACN press conference.
Indeed, graffiti left behind in occupied Christian towns, such as Batnaya, warned the “slaves of the cross” that they would never have peace in Islamic lands. Those who managed to escape went to Kurdistan, leaving everything behind. “We were there a few days later, and it was heart-breaking to see the shock on people’s faces. I saw many elderly people sitting in refugee centres, who clearly had no idea what was going on”, said Lynch.
“After the defeat of ISIS an increasing number of Christians began to think of returning to their villages. With other charities and agencies, we began a ‘Return to the Roots’ project to restore houses. Then we began to restore churches, convents and parish houses”, she adds, mentioning that the charity has channelled more than 50 million euros to Iraq between 2011 and 2022.
In March 2021 Regina Lynch was able to see some of the fruits of this effort first-hand as she accompanied Pope Francis on his historic visit to the country. “I saw how moved and encouraged the Christians were by the Pope’s visit. A hope that seems to be lasting. A bishop told me that for the first time many Iraqis discovered that Iraqi Christians were descended from the original Assyrians, and were not people who had come later with the crusaders. I will never forget the scenes in Qaraqosh. It was such a contrast to the suffering we saw in Erbil in 2014. There was real joy with the Holy Father’s visit.”
Over a year later, signs of this hope continue to be found, as John Pontifex recently witnessed. “I visited Batnaya in 2017 and saw that everything had been destroyed by ISIS. But now the Islamic State is gone and the 500 people who moved back were able to celebrate Easter mass for the first time since 2014. These are signs of real hope”, he said.
“In our latest visit to Iraq we saw a beating heart wanting to find a way forward, and Christians wanting to rebuild. They are making the effort, doing everything they can. We found this sense of determination and courage, after all the genocidal violence they went through. This courage and faith are signs of optimism, but they can’t do it alone. They need the help of others.”