Iraq: On the plains of Niniveh, where the priests have to double as master builders
• Father Georges Jahola of the Syriac Catholic Church and Father Salar Boudagh of the Chaldean Catholic Church are in charge of the reconstruction work in some of the Christian villages on the plains of Niniveh.
By Daniele Piccini
Sometimes it happens that Catholic priests have to suddenly improvise in other roles – as educationalists, parents, advisers, teachers, sometimes even as technical instructors. In Iraq, where so-called Islamic State has damaged or destroyed almost 13,000 homes belonging to Christian families on the Niniveh plains, they have even been required to assume the role of engineers and master builders, in the interests of seeing their Catholic faithful return one day to their home towns and villages.
So it is that the study of building plans sometimes takes the place of other more priestly duties and the priests, after having celebrated Holy Mass, are soon on the telephone, ordering electrical equipment, window fittings, sanitary ware and other building materials. “Here in Iraq, if the Church does not tackle these things, who else will do it? We have the skills, the ability to engage in dialogue and the necessary contacts”, explains Father Georges Jahola, a priest of the Syriac Catholic rite who hails originally from the town/village of Baghdeda (Qaraqosh) and is a member of the “Nineveh Reconstruction Commitee” (NRC), a body set up by the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and tasked with planning and supervising the rebuilding of thousands of Christian homes destroyed by IS.
(Fr. Georges Jahola, a Syro-Catholic priest from Qarakosh © Aid to the Church in Need)
In Baghdeda no fewer than 6,327 homes belonging to the Syriac Catholic Christians are in need of rebuilding (at least 108 of them totally destroyed), while those of the Syriac Orthodox Christians number 400 (only seven of which have been totally destroyed). But there is no lack of enthusiasm or ability. “After the liberation of the town, between 11 November and 3 December 2016, we spent 15 working days photographing 6,000 houses in Baghdeda”, explains Father Jahola, “we divided them up and mapped them sector by sector, assessing the degree of damage in each case. There are houses that have been very badly damaged or even destroyed, which need completely rebuilding, houses that have been burned or struck by missiles, which can still be rebuilt. And then there are houses that have been only partially damaged and can be repaired without much difficulty. We began work with a team of 20 volunteer engineers. Today I have 40 of them helping me and almost 2000 able-bodied workers ready to start work. We are optimistic about it. The reconnection of the electricity supply is slowly being extended throughout the town.”
The first rebuilding projects are focusing on those villages where IS only stayed for a short time, without doing too much damage. “We have begun rebuilding work in Telleskof and Bakofa, because the damage to the houses is not too serious, unlike in Badnaya, where 80% of the houses have been destroyed”, explains Father Salar Boudagh, 35, vicar general of the Chaldean diocese of Alqosh and a member of the NRC, who is responsible for the rebuilding work of five Chaldean Catholic villages in the Niniveh plains, – Telleskof, Bakofa, Badnaya, Telkef, which are in the eastern part, and Karamless, which is in the western part of the Niniveh plains.
“Before the arrival of IS”, continues Father Salar, “there were 1,450 families living in Telleskof, 110 in Bakofa, 950 in Badnaya, over 700 in Telkef and 875 in Karamless. For these families the first precondition for returning to their villages is security. Our area, the eastern part of the Niniveh plains, is patrolled by a Christian security force, the Zeravani, who can give us a 100% guarantee of security. They are an official militia who are paid a salary by Kurdistan.”
The second condition is the financial resources. The almost 13,000 houses that now need rebuilding, following the ravages of IS, have been divided according to the “coefficient of damage”. “It costs 7000 dollars to refurbish a home that has been lightly damaged”, Father Salar explains, reading the figures from his smartphone. “To repair a house that has been burned out costs 25,000; to rebuild a house that has been totally destroyed costs 65,000 dollars. I pray to God”, he concludes, “that the benefactors of ACN, who have helped us so much up till now, will continue to help us in every way possible – to rebuild our homes and our villages, to encourage the families to return and re-establish Christianity in the land of the prophets.”
(Fr. Salar Boudagh, from Iraq, Diocese of Alqosh © 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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