Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil in Iraq says about 9,000 Christian families have returned to their homes on the Nineveh Plains after fleeing a decade ago, when ISIS took the region.

In June of 2014, the Islamist extremist group captured Mosul and the villages to the north and east of the city, prompting a mass exodus of Christians and Yazidis.

Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Warda noted the occupation of Mosul left other Christians on the Nineveh Plains vulnerable, and on August 6, 2014, prompted by further ISIS aggression, the entire Christian population fled to Iraqi Kurdistan.

The archbishop told ACN that 13,200 Christian families had fled to his archdiocese in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.

He said he was grateful to the international community for providing emergency aid and helping to rebuild the destroyed villages, making it possible for thousands of Christian families to return to their native land, with “everyone working towards one goal.”

“All those sad and terrifying memories are still there, but at least [the Christian families] can start building and see that the future is in [their] hands,” he told the Catholic aid agency.

The archbishop said the “churches are filled again,” and “there are so many children” receiving catechesis and preparing for their First Holy Communion.

Warda went on to highlight the special role of the Catholic University of Erbil – Iraq’s only Catholic university, established in 2015 and supported by ACN – in nurturing Christian unity in the region.

He said that his community needs all the help it can get to “keep the flame of the Christian faith shining” in Iraq’s historic Christian heartland, adding “I ask my people just to be patient and persevere.”

Warda told ACN many Christians have either left or are planning to leave the country because of the ongoing economic hardship, and that young people “ask for jobs, not just to receive donations.” He explained that, even though persecution is no longer their main concern, “the pressure of being a minority is real.”

He urged the international community not to forget Iraq’s suffering Christians “in the midst of so many crises around the world.” The archbishop said that he “would love to see” the UK government and other world leaders remind Iraqi politicians that they “care about the minorities – Christians, Yazidis, and the rest.”

Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Amel Shimon Nona, told the Vatican’s Fides news agency it was difficult to recover from the ISIS invasion.

“Our church, dedicated to the Holy Spirit, was looted by gangs of thieves while the city was being taken over by IS. However, the Muslim families living nearby called the Islamist militiamen, who intervened and put an end to the looting,” he said.

The Chaldean Bishop of Alqosh, Paul Thabit Mekko, told Fides many Christians in Mosul consider the period of ISIS rule in Mosul a time of trauma that left a deep scar on the city.

“We do not know if the situation will change,” Mekko said.

“Today many live in Ankawa, the district of Erbil inhabited by Christians. They feel safer there; there are more opportunities to work. They do not think of returning to a city that has changed a lot since their time. They would not recognize it,” the bishop said.