Could the Christians return?
• Plans for Christian repopulation of Nineveh post-Daesh (ISIS)
By John Pontifex
If Mosul is recaptured from Daesh (ISIS) it could pave the way for the return of Iraqi Christians to their ancient homelands in neighbouring Nineveh – according to bishops and other Church leaders who want to reach a deal with the government.
A delegation to Iraq made up of MPs and clergy led by Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, which has provided emergency help for displaced Iraqi Christians, found that Church leaders and other leading Church figures were developing proposals which would enable the faithful to go back to towns and villages in Nineveh seized by the Islamists two years ago.
Amid reports of an imminent and comprehensive assault on Daesh-held Mosul and Nineveh, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad, head of the largest Christian community in Iraq, passed to ACN a plan in which he states that the return of faithful to Nineveh is crucial if the Church in Iraq is to survive long-term.
Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director of Aid to the Church in Need (UK), who earlier this month returned with the ACN delegation from Erbil, the regional capital of Kurdish northern Iraq, said bishops and lay Christian leaders were hopeful of Christians going back to Nineveh on the proviso that “international protection” was in place. Mr Kyrke-Smith, whose UK group in Erbil assessed emergency aid provision for 100,000 Nineveh Christians displaced to the Kurdish region, said: “I sensed much more hope among Church leaders and faithful than I did on my visit last year. There are well-made plans for the liberation of Mosul and Nineveh, with precise plans to relocate people displaced in the process. It is clear that the Church is making a strong case to re-claim its place in a region where – until 2014 – there had been an unbroken Christian presence stretching back almost to the start of Christianity.”
Setting out the case for Christians to go back to Nineveh, Patriarch Sako states in his plan: “Freeing Mosul and Nineveh from ISIS might be a glimmer of hope for native residents to return home with the condition of providing legal protection for them, and also granting them the necessary time to re-build trust with their neighbours. Otherwise, the “haemorrhage” outflow of migration [of Christians] will continue, even from safe areas, which is a very serious sign.”
Iraq’s Christian population has plummeted from more than one million before the fall of President Saddam Hussein in 2003 to less than 250,000 today. More than half of Christians still in Iraq are those displaced from Mosul and Nineveh and living in the Kurdish north. Until now there have been fears that many if not most will eventually seek an exit from the country unless a plan is in place for a return to their ancient homelands.
Mr Kyrke-Smith, whose UK delegation to Erbil included MPs Chris Green, Mark Menzies and Jim Shannon, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Working Group for International Religion or Belief, said: “During our visit, we visited the ancient village Alqosh, 100 percent Christian, perhaps 10 minutes from the front line with Daesh and those we met told us of their determination to stay and save their village and Church. It is vital that Christianity which has been driven out from other Nineveh towns and villages is given the chance to come back to life.”
(ACN(UK) delegation in Erbil: left-right Jim Shannon MP; Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director ACN (UK); Mark Menzies MP; Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, northern Iraq; Dr Caroline Hull, ACN North West Manager; Canon Pat Browne, Westminster Parliamentary Catholic Chaplain; Chris Green MP; and Father Dominic Robinson SJ, Ecclesiastical Assistant ACN (UK); © Aid to the Church in Need)
Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, a key project partner delivering ACN emergency aid for displaced Christians, told Mr Kyrke-Smith: “For nearly 2,000 years we Christians have been present on the Nineveh Plains and to return we need international protection. The Iraqi army needs to be a united force and the Peshmerga [Kurdish military] will help, with outside support. Military action as reconciliation work needs to be done. As Christians we have no involvement in violence – we have suffered – so we can help rebuild.”
As well as the MPs, the ACN delegation included ACN UK Ecclesiastical Assistant Father Dominic Robinson, Superior of Farm Street Jesuit Community in central London, Canon Pat Browne, Parliamentary Catholic Duty Priest to the Houses of Parliament and Dr Caroline Hull, ACN UK North West Manager.
(A Chaldean liturgy in St Joseph’s Church, Erbil, in Kurdish northern Iraq © Aid to the Church in Need)
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 172 languages and 50 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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