Protection of religious and ethnic minorities is crucial to the long-term stability of the Middle East, but time is running out to provide meaningful aid to prevent permanent migration from the area by besieged minorities. On the Nineveh Plain of Iraq, a vigorous church-led effort is under way to resettle Christians who fled when ISIS fighters overran the region in 2014.
Speakers at a Nov. 30 conference at the United Nations organized by the Holy See Mission to the United Nations welcomed the military defeat of ISIS. Still, they cautioned the group could achieve its ideological goal to eliminate pluralism if the international community does not support the reintegration of returning minorities.
Using the common Arabic name for ISIS, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, said, “We seek to return to survivors, as much as possible, what Daesh pillaged from them. This means ensuring the conditions for them to return to their places of origin and live in dignity and safety, with the basic social, economic and political frameworks necessary to ensure community cohesion.”
Father Salar Kajo, vicar general and pastor of three parishes in the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Al Qosh on the northern Nineveh Plain, said, “The towns in my parishes are 100 percent Christian towns,” where the Church is the center of life for the people.
“These are peaceful people, without any military or political power. They come from one of the oldest Christian cultures in the world, nearly 2,000 years old. They only want to live in peace,” he said.
ISIS chased them from their homes, and they lived for two years as displaced persons in other parts of Iraq, largely reliant on the Church for help, Father Kajo said. When the Christian towns in Nineveh were liberated in late 2016, people hurried home to find their towns looted and homes destroyed. “The churches and cemeteries had all been desecrated. There was no power and no water,” he said.
As 1,000 returning Christians families rebuilt their homes and life began to return to normal in the town of Teleskof, Father Kajo said new fighting erupted between the Kurdish government and the Iraqi army. Although a cease-fire is in place, people are deeply afraid of more violence and sleep with suitcases packed in case they have to evacuate, he said.
“I fear that if some stability cannot come in these next months, the Christian people will break and leave the land of Nineveh forever,” Father Kajo said.
Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, Iraq, said Christians and Church leaders in Iraq “have shown their commitment to be part of the solution and not part of the problem in terms of bringing peace and human rights.” He said the Church cares for more than 125,000 internally displaced Christians who fled ISIS.
The three major Christian churches of Nineveh—Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox—represent 90 percent of Iraqi Christians. They created the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee to coordinate the reconstruction of historic Christian towns in the region. Stephen Rasche, director and legal counsel for the committee, said his group “has successfully coordinated over $7 million in reconstruction and rehabilitation aid into the Nineveh Plain.” The funds were provided by Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus, along with a grant from the government of Hungary.
Edward Clancy, director of outreach and evangelization for Brooklyn-based Aid to the Church in Need, said his organization has donated more than $65 million to aid Syria and Iraq since the rise of ISIS. He described its holistic approach to integrate humanitarian assistance with economic recovery, emotional and spiritual healing, and the protection of human rights of Christians and other minorities.
Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, said his organization has committed about $17 million to help Christians “and those in their care, targeted by IS since 2014.” He said it is critical that aid operations work with the leaders of the fragile communities who are best positioned to help resettle their people.