Written by Daniele Piccini, adapted by ACN Philippines staff
Amidst the destruction left behind by ISIS, Christians in Iraq begin today the reconstruction of the houses of 105 families in the villages of Bartella, Karemlash and Baghdeda on the Nineveh Plains, an area that served as the birthplace of one of the earliest Christian communities founded by the disciples of Jesus Christ.
The project is a united effort of Orthodox Christians and the Catholic Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Last Monday, May 8, 105 Christian families were given olive tree saplings to be planted in the garden of their new homes. The olive trees symbolize the community’s humble aspiration for peace and reconciliation. The symbolic ritual marked the commencement of the reconstruction efforts.
In August 2014, ISIS forced around 130,000 Christians to flee their homes and find refuge in Kurdistan. For more than two years, the militant group burned houses, churches and committed genocide and unspeakable violence against non-Muslims in Nineveh. Iraqi forces were finally able to liberate the Nineveh Plains last November 2016.
With the liberation and signs of stability emerging, ACN worked hand in hand with representatives from the Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic and Chaldean churches to form the National Reconstruction Committee (NRC) which will take charge in the planning of the reconstruction of 13,000 Christian houses destroyed by ISIS on the Nineveh Plains.
Habib Yuossif Mansuor, 76, expressed his sincere gratitude to donors all over the world who contributed funds for the rebuilding. “We looked the pain in the eye. We fled after midnight, leaving our houses and all of our possessions. I had a two-storey house here in Karemlash that was bombed to the ground. We all speak the same language, and so we would like to return to our cities on the Nineveh Plains as brothers, as though we have only one heart. We want to live and work together, as though we are just one body. We thank the Lord and Aid to the Church in Need,” said Mansuor. Before the ISIS occupation, there was generally peaceful co-existence among Christians and Muslims in Iraq.
In Althajra Cathedral, which is consecrated to the Immaculate Conception and was set on fire by IS, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Kirkuk and Kurdistan Yohanna Petros Mouche had to wait for the applause to end several times before he could continue with the sermon he was holding in the cathedral. He pointed out that Christ is the source of unity and hope that animates the reconstruction efforts. “Christ is our tower of strength that gives us hope. We stand by our decision to return, despite all the challenges that await us. We must persevere, because this is our soil and our heritage. I am very happy that we have an organization like Aid to the Church in Need at our side.”
In response, Philipp Ozores, General Secretary of Aid to the Church in Need, said, “Today, we would like to hold on to this small sign. But with God’s help and that of our benefactors, we hope that the Nineveh Plains will be able to welcome back the Christians who were forced to flee. We hope that this region may soon become a place of life and peace for all once more.”
The cost of this project will require more than 200 million Euros (₱10 billion). The funds gathered will be allocated to each Church in proportion to the number of damaged houses within their own faith community as calculated by the assessment.
Monsignor Timothaeus Mosa Alshamany, Archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, underlined the initiative’s double historical importance. “Today, we are truly a united Church – Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean and Syriac Catholic – united in the work of rebuilding these houses on the Nineveh Plains and in restoring hope to the hearts of the inhabitants of these villages and inviting those who have left them to return.” The archbishop then went on to thank for the important role of ACN in developing this initiative: “We would like to thank ACN, which has helped us so much in the past, by providing help and food. Now this charity is playing a crucial role in the rebuilding of our houses.”
ACN will closely follow the committee’s work, though solely in the start-up phase. In subsequent phases, ACN will limit itself to seeking the possible sources of funding, above all from among major international benefactors.
Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Nicodemus Daoud Matti Sharaf of Mosul, Kirkuk and Kurdistan addressed this appeal to all Christians around the world: “We are the roots of Christianity. We must remain in our country. We must remain as witnesses to Jesus Christ in this country, in Iraq and especially in the Plains of Nineveh. This task of rebuilding all the houses in those villages where ISIS has destroyed everything is truly an enormous challenge. Thank you in advance to all those who will help us.”