On Monday 8th May in the villages of Bartella, Karamless and Qaraqosh an “Olive Tree Ceremony” will mark the beginning of rebuilding work on the first 100 homes of the Christian refugee families, in a programme sponsored by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Father Andrzej Halemba of ACN, who is an acting chairman of the “Nineveh Reconstruction Committee” has described this moment as a “historic and unrepeatable occasion for the future of Christianity in Iraq”.
By Daniele Piccini
Next week, on three separate sites in three villages of the Nineveh Plains, the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) will inaugurate rebuilding work on the first 100 of the nearly 13,000 private houses damaged and destroyed by militants of the Islamic State (IS). On Monday 8th May, by the village churches in the three Christian villages of Bartella, Karamless and Qaraqosh, olive trees will be given to the owners of the houses in order to plant them close to their houses. Also a message will be given to these families: put back your roots where you were born, live and bring fruits of peace and reconciliation.
(Campaign logo for the Christians returning to rebuild on the Plains of Nineveh © Aid to the Church in Need)
Among those present at the “Olive tree ceremony” to mark the start of rebuilding work will be the members of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC), which includes representatives of the three main Christian Churches in the region, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church, together with three experts and consultants appointed by ACN and Mr Philipp Ozores, who is secretary general of ACN.
The committee was set up on 27th March this year in order to plan and supervise the reconstruction of the nearly 13,000 or so Christian houses and homes damaged (669 of them totally destroyed) by the forces of IS during their occupation of the region. The overall cost of the rebuilding programme is estimated at over $(US)250 million dollars. ACN has already made available $(US)490,000 to the committee and to the three Christian churches it represents.
(Fr Halemba holds the finalised contract for the reconstruction of over 12,000 homes in Iraq signed by the representatives of the three Christian churches in Iraq on 27/3/17 (From the left: Archbishop Timothaeus Mosa Alshamany, Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche, Father Andrew Halemba, Metropolitan Nicodemus Daoud Matti Sharaf, and Bishop Mikha Pola Maqdassi © Aid to the Church in Need)
In a survey conducted in March it emerged that 41% of the Christian families definitely want to return to their own homes on the Plains of Nineveh, which they were forced to abandon during the IS invasion in 2014. An additional 46% of these families are seriously considering the possibility of returning. By contrast, as recently as November 2016, only 3.3% of these families, when asked the same question, were seriously considering returning to their villages.
“These figures are a snapshot of the historical dilemma facing Christianity in Iraq at the present time”, says Father Andrzej Halemba, ACN’s representative for the Middle East and the acting chairman of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee. “By starting work on these first three reconstruction sites, we are hoping to send a clear signal to the thousands of Christian families who were driven from their homes on the Plains of Nineveh and who are now living in makeshift conditions in Erbil and other towns of Iraqi Kurdistan”, he adds. “This is a decisive historical moment. If we now miss the opportunity to help the Christians return to their homes on the Plains of Nineveh, these families might well decide to leave Iraq forever. That would be an enormous tragedy. The presence of the Christians in this region is of vital importance, and not only historically, but also politically and culturally. The Christians represent a bridge of peace between the various Muslim groups that are fighting each other; they make a crucial contribution to the educational system and are respected by all moderate Muslims.” And Father Halemba concludes with an appeal for prayers. “To all our Christian brothers and sisters in the West we ask not only their financial support but also that they support with their prayers the courage of the thousands of Iraqi Christians who have made the decision to return to their villages and stay on in Iraq.”
(A resident of Qaraqosh returns home to see what’s left of his house severely damaged by IS © Aid to the Church in Need)
Meanwhile, ACN’s programme continues for distributing basic food aid to the 12,000 or so families who were forced to flee from Mosul and the other towns and villages of the Nineveh Plains, to Erbil and to other towns, like Dehouk, Kirkuk, Zakho and Alqosh. By the end of June 2017, in the seventh session of the food aid programme sponsored by ACN, the charity will have distributed over $(US)2.1 million worth of food aid. The monthly food parcels, each costing $(US)60, are distributed to all the “internally displaced persons” (IDPs), regardless of their religious faith. Since March 2016 ACN has been the only international organisation regularly supporting the IDPs in the region. Since 2014 ACN has supported the IDPs currently living in Iraq with nearly $(US)33 million of assistance.
(In a partially destroyed Church in Karamless a Christian holds the head of the Sacred Heart statue decapitated by IS when they controlled the town © Aid to the Church in Need)
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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