As Iraq’s Nineveh Plains marks the 10th anniversary of the invasion by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), the Christian community continues to live with the trauma of the tragic event.

Yet despite the efforts of the Islamist group to eradicate the Christian population, they are slowly rebuilding their presence in the area.

“Words cannot describe what we experienced 10 years ago, ISIS tried to eradicate us, but they failed”, said Syriac Catholic Archbishop Nizar Semaan of Adiabene in Northern Iraq.

“The people here are like olive trees. You can cut them, burn them, but after 10 or 20 years they will continue to give fruit. They tried everything, but we remain, and as a Church we do everything to give a sign of hope,” he said during an online conference organized by the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Bashar Warda told the conference the current threat of a regional conflict involving Israel, Hamas, Lebanon and perhaps even Iran has Christians in the Middle East on edge.

“The tension is high between certain parties, very high, and it gives you the impression that something might happen that you have to be careful about, and be well prepared, but right now we have not seen that conflict become violent,” he said.

Semaan said even though ISIS itself no longer poses a serious threat to the Christian community, religious tensions are still there.

“ISIS didn’t want us here, but it didn’t want the Shias either. The problem with Iraq is that we are trying to create isolated islands for each community, with no common life. This is dangerous. You can live wherever you want, you can be proud of your identity, but don’t close your island to other people,” he said.

“There are two ways to get rid of this mentality: Firstly, we have to focus on education, not only with Christian schools, but we have to put pressure on the government to have a moderate education system to encourage people to respect others. The second way is to have a constitution built on humanity, not on religion. This will help the Christians to stay in Iraq, to get rid of this fear. We are always afraid. Whatever happens around us, Lebanon, Gaza, anywhere, the Christians are always affected,” Semaan said.

Warda told the conference Church leaders in Iraq are trying to end this attitude and said Christians – who have international help – were asked to provide aid to Muslims and the Yezidis in refugee camps.

“After the defeat of ISIS, we established the Pope Francis Scholarship Program, and we asked ACN if we could include Yezidis and Muslims in desperate need. It is my belief that we evangelize by sharing this goodness with the people, by showing them the gospel of solidarity. We let them breathe Christ through the works of kindness that we share with them,” the archbishop said.

The ACN sponsored rebuilding projects, which Warda said had positive results in securing the Christian population.

“In 2014, we had 13,200 families registered, 11,000 of these families stayed; 9,000 of those went back later to Nineveh. This is something to be thankful for. The 2,000 that left must have gone to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and then on to the west,” he said.

Semaan noted that only half the Christians from Qaraqosh, the largest exclusively Christian town in Iraq, stayed after the ISIS occupation.

“Before ISIS we had 50,000 people in Qaraqosh, and now we have maybe 25,000,” he told the conference.

The two archbishops told the conference no matter what the difficulties and hardships the Christians in Iraq faced, their faith and love for the Church were never a matter of dispute.

“When we set up theological courses for the young displaced, to study and reflect on our faith, over 300 people registered. You have to understand that the people are very much attached to the Church, when they have a problem with the police, or a medical situation, they don’t go to the elected officials, or to the political parties, they come to the bishop,” Warda said.

“That is why I encourage you to help the Church pastorally, because if the Church is strong, the community will stay. If the priest leaves, the community will leave. The families stayed when they saw their shepherd with them. Here in Iraq, whatever families experience, they come to the Church, and there are no schedules, people will call at any time, and the priest will respond. You can’t say this is just a spiritual center for mass and prayer, everything is related,” he explained.

Michael Kelly, the Director of Public Affairs for the Irish office of Aid to the Church in Need, said the tenth anniversary of the ISIS invasion of Iraq is “sobering to think about the challenges still facing the Christian community there.”

“While ISIS are gone, the people of Iraq continue to live with the trauma of those dreadful experiences. It is heartening that thousands of Christians have returned to houses in the Nineveh Plains rebuild with the help of Aid to the Church in Need,” he told Crux.

“What is inspiring, is the deep love that the Christians of Iraq have for their Faith and their priests and bishops. The witness of the priests and bishops who are constantly available to their people is truly wonderful – a huge example of pastors with what Pope Francis describes as ‘the smell of the sheep’,” he said.

“When ISIS came, we feared that this would drive Christians from their homeland for good. It is great that about half of those displaced have come back, but it is still important to remember that half of the Christians from the Nineveh Plains have not returned,” Kelly said.

Regina Lynch, Executive President of Aid to the Church in Need International, told Crux that after the ISIS invasion, Christians fled to Iraq’s Kurdistan region, “where they were at least safe, but most of them had nothing to their name.”

“ACN was the first international organization to go to their assistance. Over the following years we helped first to secure the basic needs of the displaced, then housing, and finally the rebuilding of their homes, so that those who wished to return to their towns and villages could do so, once ISIS had been pushed back,” she said.

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