More than two years under ISIS rule. Destruction and death. The desire to start over. The commitment of the Catholic Church.
“Christianity has been present in Iraq for two millennia, it cannot simply be swept aside. We are committed to creating the necessary conditions to enable families to stay in this land”. These words, which were pronounced by Mons. Bashar Warda in 2014 after the invasion of the Nineveh plains by the Islamic State, sound today as a kept promise.
The Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Erbil has set up a real humanitarian machine able, by now, to offer assistance to more than 13,000 displaced families from the plain of Nineveh and Mosul, the majority of whom are Christians, but there also Yazidis and Muslims. The massive humanitarian apparatus along with the pastoral leadership given by priests have been providing tens of thousands of displaced people with accommodation, food, health care and education for more than two years now. The priests together with their communities were the ones who played a key role in creating a dignified survival for the displaced.
The priests took charge of the humanitarian assistance, in addition to the pastoral one. They set up and ran refugee camps, supplied food and water, promoted educational activities. They took care of their communities through solidarity.
Father Emmanuel runs the refugee camp at Ankawa, near the Christian suburbs of Irbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan. The camp is home to 1200 families, and thanks to the effort of the priest, who was born in Mosul, the structure increasingly looks like a small town by now. Over time, new shops and cafes were opened, and a school, a kindergarten and a church were established.
Fr. Jalal Jako also lives in Ankawa now. One night, two years ago, he escaped on foot as Islamic State took Qaraqosh. The priest took with him as many holy books as he could. A month ago he returned to Qaraqosh for the first time after that night, and he found his church destroyed by fire and outraged by the writings of the IS fighters. Christian places of worship are often target of attacks with priceless damage to human communities and the cultural and artistic heritage. “Despite the signs of destruction and the mines that Daesh left in the building in order to harm even after defeat, the hope to come back here one day is still alive”, says the priest.
The tragedy has pushed the Catholic community in Kurdistan to look forward. Looking to the future by starting from scratch. The future is based on education, that is why the diocese has established three prefabricated schools and even a university. “Education allows people to pass on their past, their history, it helps to remember. Moreover, the presence of priests and nuns in the Christian schools, is a strong message to the families of the children: “We’re here for you, don’t leave”, says Monsignor Warda.
But the Church has offered help not only in Erbil, but also in the diocese of Duhok-Amadya, located in the mountain villages of Inshkle and Maanghesh, where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. In these places there are no refugee camps, because families have opened their homes to give hospitality to the displaced. “Every time I come to visit these families, I can see their generosity, solidarity to the suffering people”, says Father Samir who knows all these people and who is loved and respected by everybody.
Throughout the region, the Catholic Church is present, not only in the communities of Christians but also in the refugee camps set up by the government. Since the beginning, the Caritas Iraq has offered humanitarian assistance, distributing items for basic needs and providing medical support.
But the challenge for the Iraqi Church has just begun. The liberation of the plains of Nineveh and the territories near Mosul favoured the arrival of many new displaced people. The insane action of terror by the people of the Caliphate has left behind destruction, erasing history and culture. Now there are only rubble and desolation in villages and cities which once were lively and productive. Now it is time for reconstruction in the ancient battered Nineveh. The fury of the Islamic State and the war have destroyed houses, economic and social structures, churches and pastoral centres. The country besides the reconstruction of structures, and economic recovery, needs also policies capable of restoring conditions for a peaceful multi-ethnic and multi-religious coexistence of the different communities which, for centuries, have inhabited this land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. (J.L.)
Grazie per la collaborazione.