Iraq: “Christians are like olive trees. You can burn them, but they will still bear fruit”

Many feared that the invasion of their homelands would drive Christians from Iraq for good, but ten years after being driven from their homelands by militants of the Islamic State (ISIS), thousands of Christians have returned to houses in the Nineveh Plains rebuilt with the help of ACN, taking with them their love for the Church and the hope of the Gospel.

“Words cannot describe what we experienced 10 years ago, ISIS tried to eradicate us, but they failed”, said Nizar Semaan, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Adiabene, in Northern Iraq. “The people here are like olive trees. You can cut them, burn them, but after 10 or 20 years they will continue to give fruit. They tried everything, but we remain, and as a Church we do everything to give a sign of hope”, he added, during an online conference organised by the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

Fr. Thabet Habeb Mansur in the Mar Addai Church which used to be the biggest and the most modern church in Karamles
Fr. Thabet Habeb Mansur in the Mar Addai Church which used to be the biggest and the most modern church in Karamles

Though outright violence has receded in Iraq, the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, who also took part in the conference, said that the current threat of a regional conflict involving Israel, Hamas, Lebanon and perhaps even Iran has Christians on edge, as they are aware that in these situations, they often become outright targets for fundamentalists or collateral targets in the wars of others. These divisions also continue to manifest in the political sphere. “The tension is high between certain parties, very high, and it gives you the impression that something might happen that you have to be careful about, and be well prepared, but right now we have not seen that conflict become violent.”

Fighting an “island” mentality

The Syriac Catholic archbishop confirms that ISIS itself no longer poses a serious threat to the Christian community but vanquishing the mentality that gave rise to it is another question. “ISIS didn’t want us here, but it didn’t want the Shias either. The problem with Iraq is that we are trying to create isolated islands for each community, with no common life. This is dangerous. You can live wherever you want, you can be proud of your identity, but don’t close your island to other people.”

“There are two ways to get rid of this mentality: Firstly, we have to focus on education, not only with Christian schools, but we have to put pressure on the government to have a moderate education system to encourage people to respect others. The second way is to have a constitution built on humanity, not on religion. This will help the Christians to stay in Iraq, to get rid of this fear. We are always afraid. Whatever happens around us, Lebanon, Gaza, anywhere, the Christians are always affected”, said Archbishop Semaan.

Students of the Catholic University in Erbil
Students of the Catholic University in Erbil

As Church leaders, the bishops are trying to break through this mentality in their own communities. Recognising that Christians had access to quite a lot of help, they did not hesitate to reach out to other communities that were also in need. “We shared some of that help with the Muslims and the Yezidis in the camps. After the defeat of ISIS, we established the Pope Francis Scholarship Programme, and we asked ACN if we could include Yezidis and Muslims in desperate need. It is my belief that we evangelise by sharing this goodness with the people, by showing them the gospel of solidarity. We let them breathe Christ through the works of kindness that we share with them”, Archbishop Warda explained, highlighting that education is the key to a future of coexistence, which is why the Catholic Church has invested so much in this field, with the help of ACN.

Rebuilding houses and lives

At the height of the crisis, there was fear that if nothing was done the entire community would leave the Nineveh Plains and perhaps even the country. Since then, and thanks to ACN sponsored rebuilding projects, the news is largely positive, according to Archbishop Warda. “In 2014, we had 13,200 families registered, 11,000 of these families stayed. Nine thousand of those went back later to Nineveh. This is something to be thankful for. The 2,000 that left must have gone to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and then on to the west.”

Around half the Christians from Qaraqosh, the largest exclusively Christian town in Iraq, whose population fled en masse before ISIS occupied it, have also returned. “Before ISIS we had 50,000 people in Qaraqosh, and now we have maybe 25,000”, said Archbishop Semaan.

Christians refugee centre located in a sports centre in Ankawa Christian neighborhood in Kurdish town of Erbil, Iraq
Christians refugee centre located in a sports centre in Ankawa Christian neighborhood in Kurdish town of Erbil, Iraq

As for those who managed to leave the country, the two Catholic archbishops are aware that there is little hope of them ever returning for good, saying that they only come back when and if they have their situation regularised in their new countries, so that they can easily escape if a new crisis arises. Those who have children are even less likely to return, except for holidays.

Another thing the prelates agree on is that no matter what the difficulties and hardships the Christians in Iraq faced, their faith and love for the Church were never a matter of dispute.

“When we set up theological courses for the young displaced, to study and reflect on our faith, over 300 people registered. You have to understand that the people are very much attached to the Church, when they have a problem with the police, or a medical situation, they don’t go to the elected officials, or to the political parties, they come to the bishop. That is why I encourage you to help the Church pastorally, because if the Church is strong, the community will stay. If the priest leaves, the community will leave. The families stayed when they saw their shepherd with them. Here in Iraq, whatever families experience, they come to the Church, and there are no schedules, people will call at any time, and the priest will respond. You can’t say this is just a spiritual centre for mass and prayer, everything is related”, says Archbishop Warda.

Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, Archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Archeparchy of Erbil
Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, Archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Archeparchy of Erbil

Any other person might complain about this exhausting lifestyle, but not these bishops. “It makes us feel that we are alive. Our phones are never off, we have to take calls, we have to go out, to open our doors to everyone. Anybody can reach us easily; you come and knock on the door. That is what Church means. Our people are attached to the Church, and that is good”, affirms Archbishop Semaan. “We try to give them whatever we can, regardless of the field. It is not our job to call the police, but we do it. It is not our job to provide them with things, but we do. Many people are dedicated to the service of the Church, and when you see many young people in the Church you thank God, because this is what it means to be a Church. This is the way of keeping our Church alive. So, we thank God.”

For ACN seeing the Church in Iraq alive and well, despite reservations and fears, is a sign of a job well done. “When ISIS invaded, the Christians fled to Kurdistan, where they were at least safe, but most of them had nothing to their name. ACN was the first international organisation to go to their assistance. Over the following years we helped first to secure the basic needs of the displaced, then housing, and finally the rebuilding of their homes, so that those who wished to return to their towns and villages could do so, once ISIS had been pushed back”, said Regina Lynch, executive president of ACN International, who also spoke at the conference.

ACN has been running projects with the local Churches in Iraq since 1972. In July 2014, ACN was the first organisation to help on the ground, and since then the international charity has supported nearly 500 projects with over €56 million worth of aid, from immediate humanitarian assistance to reconstruction projects and scholarships.

 

By Filipe d’Avillez.

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