About 500 Christian families – up to 2,500 people – celebrated their long-awaited homecoming to Iraq’s Nineveh Plains with ceremonies marking a fresh start in their old towns and villages.
In Qaraqosh (Baghdeda), the largest of Nineveh’s Christian towns, priests and people holding olive branches processed through the streets chanting hymns in Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.
Protected by security personnel in armoured vehicles, the procession was headed by priests holding crucifixes aloft.
A service took place at the Immaculate Conception Syriac Catholic Church, in the town centre, a building desecrated and burnt by Daesh (ISIS) militants.
During the ceremony, Aid to the Church in Need Middle East projects’ coordinator Father Andrzej Halemba called on people to forgive those who had forced them out of their homes and attacked their towns and villages.
Fr Halemba told the returnees: “Of course we cry when we see the violence that has been carried out but we should remove the anger in our hearts.
“There should be no hatred in our hearts. We should reconcile with our neighbour.”
Afterwards, Father Halemba, who organised the ceremonies in conjunction with local clergy distributed to each family olive trees symbolising the returnees’ return to their roots – the communities where they have lived for centuries.
Another olive tree distribution ceremony took place earlier that day (Sunday, 10th September) at the Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church, Bartella, a largely Syriac Orthodox town, close to Qaraqosh.
At least 2,000 families – 10,000 people – are reported to have returned to Qaraqosh, with at least another 500 families – 2,500 people – expected by the end of the month (September).
ACN is repairing hundreds of homes in a number of Nineveh’s Christian-majority towns and villages, where widespread destruction was carried out during and after the Daesh (ISIS) occupation of the region from August 2014 to October 2016.
The charity is also committed to repairing churches in both towns as well as in Teleskuf, where restoration of St George’s Church is well under way.
Thanking the charity for organising the ceremonies and helping with the repair of homes, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Timotheos Moussa Al Shamany of Bartella said: “This was a wonderful way to mark the start of our return to our homes – the land where we belong.”
More celebrations and processions are due to be held today (Thursday), the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, an especially important feast in the region.