Archbishop Amel Nona was the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul when ISIS invaded the city in 2014 forcing the Christian communities to flee. The archbishop found shelter together with his flock in Telkef and in other Christian villages on the Nineveh Plains. This refuge was short-lived: during the night of August 6th, with only 30 minutes warning, Peshmerga troops retreated from the path of the ISIS advance, leaving more than 120,000 Christians to their fate. The night of the exodus, their flight to Erbil and eventually on to other countries around the world, became the “Golgotha” of the 21st century for tens of thousands of Christians.
Three years later Maria Lozano, head of Press for the international pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), interviews Mons. Amel Nona, the Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Australia & New Zealand, about the recent liberation of Mosul and the Christians’ return to the Nineveh Plains.
The media has broadcast the news that Mosul is finally free from ISIS fighters. What were your first feelings when you heard this news?
My first feeling was the memory of the last day in Mosul and the night when our people had to flee the city. When I heard that the city was liberated, I couldn’t stop thinking of our people: where are they now, what about our very ancient churches and our Christian heritage? What has happened to all of these over the last 3 years?
You were the Archbishop of Mosul when ISIS entered in the city and overnight displaced you from your diocese. What is your memory of this traumatic time?
That night was really a dramatic time in my life. I was indeed afraid for our people, particularly the young girls in our orphanage in Mosul as well as other families where the members were just mothers and children … so I tried everything to help them leave the city safely. Thank God, in early morning, we were able to bring all the girls and other vulnerable families out. I was very happy when I knew that they had arrived safely outside the city of Mosul.
After 3 years of occupation is Mosul really free from ISIS? Even if the fighters are gone, some people say that ISIS remains a psychological burden on those affected by the occupation.
It is not easy to say that ISIS is defeated in Mosul and beyond. ISIS is a of way of thinking and acting and this results in a society thinking that it has the right to do what it wants, that their belief is only the one, and that this should be enforced on all other people. So although the city of Mosul has been liberated militarily, there is still another battle ahead: to change and defeat the cradle of this kind of thinking and acting. Christians affected by the occupation of ISIS are not able to easily live a normal life there when they know that the society responsible for making ISIS still exists – as it was 3 years ago.
How large was the Christian community before ISIS invaded the city? How many churches, rites and people were living there?
In 2014 in the city of Mosul there were around 15,000 people from all different churches: Chaldeans, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic and few Armenian families. Many of our Chaldean churches were closed, however, even before 2014 because a good number of our people left the city after the assassinations of Fr. Ragheed and Bishop Raho in 2008.
Do you think that the Christian community will return to Mosul?
I don`t know if they will go back to Mosul; it is too early to know if they will return or not.
Your family is from Alqosh. Are you following the reconstruction of the Christian villages in the Nineveh Plains?
Yes I am and we try also in our Chaldean diocese in Australia to find the best way to help the construction of the Christian villages in the Nineveh Plains.
How do you view the future of Christians in Iraq?
It is very hard to know what the future of Christians in Iraq will be, but as a Christian I hope that it will be a good future although there are many negative factors in the current situation throughout the area.
What is your message to the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need?
I would like to say to the benefactors that these are your Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq who are in extreme need – so help them to stay and build a future again in this region of their origin. Christians have lived in these lands for 2000 years and there is a risk that they can lose everything if you don’t support them in this critical situation. Help them to stay and live as Christians in these lands.
The challenges facing Christians in the Nineveh Plains are enormous: Currently there are still 14,000 registered families who have fled from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains living in Erbil (approximately 90,000 people), nearly 13.000 homes to be rebuilt, security concerns in the villages, Kurdish-Iraqi political maneuvering on the ground, infrastructure concerns (water, electricity, roads, schools and clinics) and most importantly the transition period between the end of monthly rentals and food packages and the move of these families to the restored villages. Drawing from the most recent surveys updated by the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee on July 14, 2017, 1228 families have already returned to Nineveh Plains and 423 properties are being renovated of which 157 have been restored through financial contributions by ACN.
Since the crisis began, Aid to the Church in Need has provided ongoing support to the Christian refugees in northern Iraq. To date, a total of 31 million euros has been donated for emergency aid including food, education, housing, pastoral help and reconstruction.