By Maria Lozano
“Hope is coming back to the Nineveh Plains” reports the Middle East section head of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) after returning from a fact-finding mission from the Iraqi Christian villages liberated last November from ISIS. Fr Andrzej Halemba, stated that, “despite the many urgent questions that need clarification, people are willing to return to their villages”. When asked about the nature of these urgent questions Fr. Halemba referred to the concerns of illegal property appropriations of the abandoned homes, an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in the destruction of Christian houses and for those Christian families who contemplate going home, the ongoing security fears of violence from isolated militant and fundamentalists who do not wish to see the Christians return.
(Fr Halemba stands beside the desecrated statue of Our Lady in the Telskuf's Catholic Church © Aid to the Church in Need)
To get a firsthand understanding of the destruction Fr Halemba visited all the Christian villages recaptured from ISIS over the past months. He reported that “most of the houses have been visited at least once by the owners because they want to see what is happening with their proprieties”. He recognized a major change in the attitude of the IDPs since November of 2016: “We did a first survey in November to know if they wanted to go back to their villages. We saw that they were too afraid in view of the continued fighting in Mosul, also about the possibility of having terrorists still hidden in the area and finally concerns regarding the education of the children. The conclusions of this first ACN survey showed us that no more than 1% of people wanted to go back. Now during my visit to Alqosh I was told that there are more than 50% of IDPs willing to return. And this number keeps increasing.”
Speaking about ACN’s aid program for the next six months, Fr. Halemba detailed the current challenges facing the charity in supporting the displaced Christian families in Erbil until repatriation: “We have to help these refugees – especially now in a cold winter - get through each day. This means continuing our support for food baskets for over 12,000 families, as well as for housing. We have been asked to increase our help with rental assistance. Previously we supported the rent of 641 houses, the equivalent of 1,800 families. Today that request has grown to help over 5,000 families who live in over 3,000 houses. This is a great challenge”.
For this hope in the future, Fr. Halemba looks to the past calling the international community “to a new Marshall Plan”. Referring to the European Recovery Program initiated in 1948 by the United States after World War II to help Western Europe regain economic stability, Fr. Halemba stated: “To have a proper understanding, one of the most important first steps is an initial assessment of the destruction. ACN is supporting Christian groups on the ground to make a professional evaluation. Thousands of photographs collated with thousands of descriptions of the destruction are being gathered together with an estimation of the costs to rebuild. With the help of satellite pictures the team identifies each house in each village in the Nineveh Plain recovered from ISIS. The houses we are speaking about belong to Syrian Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Chaldeans and some mixed villages as well. We are talking about some 10 villages.”
The next step planned is a follow-up to the November 2016 survey concerning the intention to return of at least 1,200 Christians IDP families sheltered in Erbil in Northern Iraq. Based on these two documents - the assessment of destruction and the survey of the intent to return – Aid to the Church in Need is encouraging the creation of a special committee to supervise a comprehensive Marshall Plan to facilitate their return.
What would this Marshall Plan for the Nineveh include? Fr. Halemba points to a variety of topics: “It has to include a consolidation report about the destruction, the creation of a local committee and a fundraising program for the reconstruction of the villages. ACN will support the reconstruction, however, we have to work together with other charities for alone is impossible to manage this. Then the legal issues need to be considered; this includes, for example, the right to full citizenship of the Christians in Iraq and the involvement of the Iraqi government in the reconstruction. The government should be responsible for creating structures and job projects but also allowing Christians to be granted security in their villages. This is vital in light of their horrific experiences of the recent past. Awareness of and aid programs for this Marshall Plan for the Nineveh should also be raised at the international level. Finally it is very important to properly collate the documentation of the destruction and the violent acts of persecution so that, in some way, a sense of justice and peace can return and to assure this never happens again.”
(Fr Steven Azabod (left) and Fr Salar Soulayman Bodagh (Chaldean priests) standing in the sanctuary of the Mar Quryaqus (Qeryaqos) church in Batnaya ransacked and vandalised by ISIS © Aid to the Church in Need)
For Fr. Halemba, time is short as he estimates that the first weeks of February are crucial for the charity’s project planning: “We’re expecting the families to start going back in June and ACN has to be ready to help them return. But latest information indicates that some families have decided to go back to the villages already during winter, despite the harsh weather conditions and very poor or destroyed infrastructure. We have to see if we can refocus part of our help for Erbil to a ‘start-up support’ for the Nineveh Plain. These people also rely on the Church – they look to the Church as a sign of security and stability and so ACN has to help religious sisters and priests to go back with their flocks. ACN has to support these people in this decisive and historical moment for Christians in Iraq.”
Aid to the Church in Need has been supporting the Christians in Iraq since 2014 with over $36 million in aid for emergency relief projects, education, food and the livelihoods of displaced persons.
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 172 languages and 50 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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