Celebrating a Christmas filled with hope in Erbil after the liberation of the villages on the Nineveh plains

“Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go before the refugees can return to their homes. The region is riddled with bombs,” Father Luis Montes reports “The refugees in the northern part of Iraq know that Christians from other countries have kept them alive” Mónica Zorita, Aid to the Church in Need This year, Christian refugees in the northern part of Iraq are twice as excited to celebrate the birth of Christ. This is because the vast majority of the villages on the Nineveh plains, which have been under occupation by the “Islamic State” (IS) since the summer of 2014, have now been liberated. At the time, 120,000 people fled the advancing jihadist threat, leaving their homes in great haste. “When we received the news that IS was retreating, a spontaneous celebration broke out in the refugee camps. The people went out into the streets to dance and sing, as though they did not have any other problems in their lives,” Father Luis Montes, episcopal vicar of the Latin bishop for Kurdistan, reported. He has been living in Iraq since 2010. In an interview with the international pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the Argentine priest from the Institute of the Incarnate Word explained that despite this initial joy, very difficult steps must first be taken before the refugees can return to their homes. “Approximately 60% of the homes on the Nineveh plains were burned down. The terrorists not only seized all of their belongings. They riddled the region with land mines.” They even “put bombs in with children’s toys” so that they would explode when the people returned. “It is true that some people were able to return to their houses. However, they were only able to determine that they still exist. Because it is impossible to live there,” Father Montes said gravely. “The mines first need to be cleared out of the entire region. Only then can the villages be restored, and that from the ground up. Everything still needs to be done, the people have nothing left.” Meanwhile, the refugees are living in Erbil, the capital city of semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, in what is practically a dream state. Most of the country’s Christians are living there at the moment. “They have not lost the hope of being able to return to their homes. They envision themselves living back in their houses, receiving friends and relatives there. Because hospitality is very important to them. Despite everything, Iraqis have lost neither their smiles nor their hope.” Father Luis Montes described them as a model of willpower. They held out all through these horrible years “not only in peace, but also with joy”. “It is easy being a pastor here because they really live what they say. To talk about forgiveness with them is easy because they forgive without bearing a grudge. They are what gives us strength.” Christmas with blankets and chocolate The Christmas holiday is celebrated very intensely in the northern part of Iraq. The houses and streets are decorated with Christmas trees and lights. A very special atmosphere pervades. During Advent, believers prepare themselves for the arrival of the Lord by going to confession. A highlight of the celebrations are the various Masses that are held during these days. The Argentine priest describes how chocolate is passed out in the refugee camps after Holy Mass as a sign of joy and brotherhood. If an aid organisation has donated gifts, they are also distributed. “I find it quite impressive to look into the faces of the children when they see the presents. Not only because of the things in and of themselves, but because people who live very far away were thinking of them.” In these days, the average temperature is minus three degrees Celsius. A great contrast to the sweltering 50 degrees that the country experiences in the summer. The solution is “blankets and more blankets”, because the walls of the prefabricated barracks in the refugee camps are very thin. “Because they had to be built very quickly to accommodate the large masses of people, many of these barracks have construction defects. These are gradually being repaired. Sometimes the families live in flats that they share with other families and that have been rented by the diocese of Erbil.” “They know that Christians from other countries have kept them alive” Since 2011, ACN has been providing aid by supporting various projects throughout the country, such as the building of schools, renting flats for refugee families, Mass stipends for priests, distributing Christmas presents or paying the maintenance costs for various Christian refugee camps. Father Luis Montes expressed how deeply he appreciates the work of the foundation. He affirmed that the refugees “know that Christians from other countries have kept them alive. They always pray for their benefactors.” Nevertheless, the priest from the Institute of the Incarnate Word asked that the international community not forget Iraq once the Islamic State has been defeated. “This country needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. The people have lost everything.”
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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.