By Maria Lozano
The displaced Christians in Erbil will probably not be able to return to their villages in the Nineveh Plain until summer 2017. While the military operations have broadly secured the area, snipers, mines and pockets of militants remain. Until the final liberation of Mosul it will be not safe for the villagers to return. Another fundamental condition for the families to go back will be the reconstruction of the villages. In the meantime internal displaced Christians need to survive the winter in Erbil – according to Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil.
In an interview during his visit [on Wednesday 9th November] to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Warda said: “Going back I think is certain; people will go back but they need some time. When? This ‘when’ is not a time, it’s a status: when Mosul is liberated, when Mosul is secure, when the government starts moving towards reconstructing and trying to really make these places [Nineveh Plain] secure. Of course some people will stay in Duhok and Erbil because they have made their life and started small businesses, but if concrete signs are given people will definitely return. We expect this to happen but I would say hopefully by the summer of 2017 we will be seeing people on the ground working, cleaning and trying to open institutions again.”
Concerning the retaking of Mosul the Archbishop remarked: “We expect a hard battle. It will take time to convince the people living in Mosul that it is good for them to change the situation. We have to wait. We know that Mosul is one of the strongholds for ISIS and they are going to defend their position there until the last minute.”
Notwithstanding the evident challenges ahead, for the displaced Christians in Erbil who were expulsed from the recently recovered region, the Chaldean Archbishop from Erbil observes: “There is hope. People thank God because despite a lot of difficulties at least today we are sure that our lands are being liberated. Finally ISIS is being defeated; the Cross is victorious and finally this terrible evil [ISIS] is no longer there. People are celebrating masses and prayers. Every day they are going to check on their properties in these villages. Unfortunately there’s a lot of destruction: burned churches, some of the shrines were completely destroyed and a lot of houses were burned and furniture looted. We need time for reconstruction and to make these villages a livable again.”
Due to the fact that return will be not possible yet, food, medicine, shelter and schooling for the IDPs in Erbil remain the first and biggest worry for the Archbishop: “People would say, if ISIS is gone the help is no more needed, they could say ‘go on with your life’ but we can’t. The winter is coming. We need the help here until they can go back.”
Of great concern for Iraqi Christians is not only a possible delay in the liberation of Mosul and consequent postponement of the reconstruction of the villages, but also the possibility that new clashes and conflicts will arise in the area of the Nineveh Plain. The Archbishop said: “We have got the military part of this case but the political and social context is not yet settled. Christians are afraid that the borders of the Nineveh Plain will not be protected from political disputes. There are considerable fears that some people, some groups or parties will use the Nineveh Plains to make their position stronger.” Warda added: “This is why we need the international community to put pressure on all concerned parties and tell them: ‘Enough of wars, enough of violence, let’s have a period of peace also for these people who have been suffering and persecuted, who have experienced a severe genocide.”
Archbishop Warda thanked Aid to the Church in Need which according to his reporting has provided through the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese 43% of the total ongoing emergency aid for the IDPs in Erbil since the summer of 2014. “I would like to say thank you for your support, your prayers and your help. Without your help we would not be able today to speak about a possible return to the villages in the Nineveh Plain. Because of your help we still have Christian families in Iraq. I ask you to continue this support and to continue to pray and to continue to be a voice for the marginalized and persecuted Christians around the world”.