It was only in March of this year that ISIS lost the final vestiges of its “caliphate” in Syria, and last week that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the world’s most notorious terrorist, died in a shootout with American soldiers.
Meanwhile, life in a Christian region to the north of Mosul, the Nineveh Plains, is slowly resuming, two years after Mosul was liberated from its Islamist overlords, with the help of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
On 30th October, Philipp Ozores, Secretary-General of ACN, visited the Nineveh Plains to announce the beginning of a major new phase of support to the Nineveh Plains, involving the rehabilitation of church-owned properties, to restore a feeling of security to returned residents.
Approximately 45% of the population has returned; shops have reopened, many houses have been repaired, and church life has resumed: catechism, radio, schools, and women’s groups. A large part of this return to normalcy has been supported by ACN’s benefactors, who have allowed the pontifical foundation to engage in a wide-ranging program of emergency aid and home rehabilitation. Since 2014, it has spent €23,401,521 in emergency aid to support Christian IDPs in Iraq, primarily through food and rent support.
In the Nineveh Plains, ACN has funded the rehabilitation of 2,086 homes, or 37% of all homes that have been repaired. This program, to the value of €6,431,308, supported homes in Baghdeda, Bartella, Tesqopa, Karamless, Bashiqa, and Bahzani.
Still, emigration remains a grave threat to the future of the region, where some people are losing hope that Christianity can flourish in Iraq, and look to countries like Australia and Germany for a better future. The rate of departures is such that urgent action is needed to restore security, and create positive reasons for the indigenous Christian people of Iraq to stay in their homeland.
In this context, ACN is shifting towards a new phase of projects designed to make people feel safe in the towns to which they have returned. These projects are all about rebuilding critical church infrastructure in several of the Christian towns and villages that dot the area.
Mr Ozores attended a meeting of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC), chaired by ACN Middle East Section Head Fr Andrzej Halemba, to announce several of these projects. The NRC meeting was attended by representatives of the Syriac Catholic Church (Fr George Jahola), Syriac Orthodox Church (Fr Jacob Yasso), and Chaldean Catholic Church (Fr Thabet Habib). Mr Ozores told participants of the solidarity of the global Catholic Church: “We are with you, and we will remain with you in Iraq.”
Chief among these projects is Great Al-Tahira Church, the largest church in Iraq, sitting in Baghdeda, Iraq’s largest Christian city, which is 95% Syriac Catholic. ACN will be supporting the €510,000 restoration of the interior of the church, which remains charred and unsightly, after ISIS militants piled the pews and furniture of the church in a heap, set it alight, and fled the town.
Every day, parishioners gather in the remains of the church, although many are saddened to worship in a visibly desecrated church, which was once the pride of the town. Many people are still recovering from the trauma of displacement, murdered relatives, and their knowledge that their home was colonized for two years by Islamist fanatics and their Yezidi slaves. ACN hopes that this project will restore hope to Iraq’s remaining Christians – a battered and fragile mere 10% of the 1.5 million Christians who existed in the country prior to its descent into civil war, and the religiously motivated murder of at least 1,000 Christians.
Although the Christians of the Nineveh Plains have proved their resilience, in this critical period of reconstruction, they hope not to be forgotten.
After the interior is restored, more work will need to be done to restore the damaged exterior and belltower of the building. The Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Petros Mouche, told ACN: “For us, this church is a symbol. This church was built in 1932, and it was the villagers of Baghdeda who constructed it. For this reason, we want this symbol to remain as a Christian symbol to encourage the people, especially the locals of Baghdeda, to stay here.”
“This is our country, and this is a witness that we can give for Christ … I would like to take advantage of this occasion to thank all the people who help, as these organizations can’t help us without the support of their benefactors.”
ACN also approved €897,373 to reconstruct the Najem Al-Mashrik Hall and Theatre in Bashiqa, a Yezidi-Christian town, with a large Syriac Orthodox population. The Hall will allow the church to resume large wedding ceremonies, and encourage young people to build their future in their home, rather than looking to foreign countries.
Fr Daniel Behnam, the local priest, said: “We are happy to accept the reconstruction of Najem Al-Mashrik Hall. This project will help ensure the survival of Christian families, and provide them with important services. In particular, it will help young people, providing a space for pastoral, cultural, and youth activities.”
ACN also recently approved 13 other projects amounting to €711 Tsd for Syrian-Catholic, Chaldean and Syrian-Orthodox Christians, all to rebuild church properties damaged by ISIS militants.