“Thanks to the help from Europe and Western countries, there are still Christians in Iraq,” explained Father Jens Petzold while visiting Zurich, where he had been invited by Aid to the Church in Need Switzerland (ACN). Father Petzold is originally from Berlin, but grew up in Switzerland. Since 2012, he has been head of the Chaldean Catholic monastery “Deir Maryam El-Adhra” (Monastery of the Virgin Mary) in Sulaymaniah, which is located in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
“Iraq appears to be returning to a certain degree of normality. However, much still needs to be done to ensure that Christians can return to their villages on the Nineveh Plains. It will still take some time before the last house in these destroyed villages will have been rebuilt,” the 58-year-old cleric emphasised. But even then, it remains to be seen if the people, who had been able to escape the advance of the terrorist militias of the “Islamic State” in August 2014 only at the very last moment, will actually remain in this unstable region.
Since his ordination to the priesthood in 2012, Father Jens Petzold has held the name Abuna Yohanna and belonged to the ecumenical community al-Khalil, which has chosen the promotion of a dialogue between Islam and Christianity as its mission.
The temptation of emigration
Of the 250 people who were taken in by the monastery Deir Maryam El-Adhra during the invasion of the Nineveh Plains, a quarter have already emigrated, the priest said. Some of those remaining have settled in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil, the capital city of the autonomous Kurdistan Region. Others have returned to their villages.
As Father Petzold pointed out, in addition to having lost their faith in the future, in the authorities and in a number of their Muslim neighbours, who had initially received the IS militias with open arms, the Christians are now facing a very precarious economic situation. And, the priest continued, corruption is everywhere.
“Young people do not want to be locked in a cage in which they would not be free to move. There would be little sense in building up a region of only Christians, a ghetto in the midst of Muslim villages. The only solution is dialogue and reconciliation,” the cleric emphasised. He pointed out that one should not forget that many Muslims also suffered suppression by IS. “Half of the Muslims fled Mosul,” the monk said.
Expanding the horizons of the younger generations
Now that emergency aid no longer needs to be provided, Father Petzold reported that his monastic community was planning to dedicate itself once more to its original mission: the promotion of a Christian Islamic dialogue as well as a spiritual and intellectual exchange. “We do not claim to be able to change the reality of the Near East, but we are taking initial steps within the realms of what is possible for our monastery. We are focusing on young adults who are in need of education and training. We want to expand their horizons,” Father Petzold explained. He then said that he and his fellow monks had discovered that there are quite a few language barriers between the individual ethnic groups, including between Kurds and Arabs. The monks have responded to this by founding a language school. Father Petzold believes that these instruments are helpful in convincing young people to remain in their homeland.
Father Petzold reported that more than 600 people took part in the language courses offered by the monastery last year and 150 had started further professional training. The monastery also offers courses in psychology and philosophy. “Education makes it possible for Christians to break out of the vicious cycle of parallel societies and to develop a society based on universal civil rights and not on religious affiliation,” Father Petzold explained.
Aid to the Church in Need supporting Christians in Iraq
ACN has done a great deal to support Christians persecuted by the so-called Islamic State. Over the past few years, over 47 million Euros in emergency relief have been approved by the international Catholic charity. ACN also initiated the campaign “Back to the Roots” to encourage the return and to support the people who were driven out of the communities destroyed by IS.
The objective of the campaign is to repair and rebuild the houses in Christian villages that were damaged or destroyed as well as the institutions of the Church, including 18 monasteries and convents, schools, hospitals and chemist’s shops. Currently, about 46 per cent of the displaced Christians have returned to the places they once called home.