ROME — Days after the liberation of the Iraqi Christian town of Mosul by national military forces, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako urged his people to “return quickly to reclaim their lands before others seize them, instead of wasting time in waiting, disputing, and dividing the community.”
His statement, published on the website of the patriarchate on Wednesday, comes after the July 9 liberation of Mosul by Iraqi forces. The town had been seized by the fundamentalist group known as the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014.
“Now is the right time to adhere effectually to the land of their parents and grandparents, their identity, history and heritage,” Sako wrote. “The fact that we are the indigenous people of this country and its ancient civilizations, and that our history is traced back to the oldest Christian Church in the world, should be kept in our mind always.”
Sako called this a “historic moment and a test for Christians” to renew their commitment and confirm their presence in Iraq. He also urged the faithful to claim compensation for their losses from the Iraqi Central Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, as well as the international community.
After celebrating the liberation of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, the patriarch said there’s still “a long way to go” before IS is “completely eradicated from the region.”
Chaldean Catholics are the majority Christian group in Iraq, but, as with other Christian groups in recent years, most of those who survived the genocide perpetrated by IS have fled their towns, and many have left the country.
Though current statistics of the real presence of Christians in Iraq are speculative, it’s known that by 2003 they numbered 1.5 million, representing just over 6 percent of the population. By the time IS began mass killings in 2014, the number had dropped to 450,000.
When ISIS overran Mosul in 2014, an estimated additional 100,000 Christians were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in internally displaced camps to escape forced conversion to Islam, paying the jizya tax on non-Muslims, or death.
The European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom have all recognized the actions perpetrated by IS against Christians and other minorities, such as the Yazidi and Shi’a Muslims, as genocide, as has Pope Francis.
According to Sako, the challenge now is not only to eradicate fundamentalism but also rebuilding what has been destroyed, and re-establishing a “peaceful, safe and stable atmosphere.”
He presented three ideas in this regard.
First, he suggested Christians should join forces to rebuild houses and rehabilitate their infrastructure. However, he urges the community to “stay away from topics that may complicate the return and reconstruction efforts.”
The international papal charitable organization Aid to the Church in Need, and others, including Fratenité en Irak, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Crux’s partners the Knights of Columbus, have begun with the reconstruction efforts, adding to the material aid they’ve provided since the crisis began.
Dismantling landmines, which Sako has called the “sneaky hidden enemy in the ground,” is high on the list of priorities.
Earlier in the year, Aid to the Church in Need, together with the Christian churches present in the recently freed Nineveh Plains region, launched the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee. To secure the estimated $250 million needed to rebuild the destroyed houses alone, the new NGO is working with the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Syriac Catholic Church.
The committee will coordinate the lobbying efforts to secure financial aid from established aid giving organizations, states, and entities throughout the world, and the proceeds of funds raised will be distributed according to the needs revealed through a joint survey of reconstruction.
A second suggestion the patriarch made was for Christians to take part in the Iraqi political life, perhaps by “forming a small group of 7 to 10 solid citizens who are able to function as spokespersons for the Christian community.”
These groups, he wrote, should be able to work with other politicians at a national and international level, and be willing to renounce any “personal interest” and to advocate for “solidarity, cooperation” alongside Muslim representatives and other communities.
Last, he called for the opening of a “central media office” in Nineveh, “which would ensure that Christian voices are heard while highlighting their suffering and expectations.”
Such an initiative, Sako said, would “help them overcome the current difficulties and transform their differences into constructive unity.”
In his message, Sako wrote that the Church is not a “substitute” for loyal politicians, but it plays a “vital role in a person’s life by speaking the truth about public affairs,” particularly on matters such as peace building, justice, and the need to guarantee a decent life for all citizens.
In mid-June, Sako together with three other bishops visited Mosul for the first time since the IS siege in 2014. At the time, they found that all the churches in town, whether Chaldean, Syrian Catholic or Assyrian, had been destroyed.
“Everything has changed so much, including the streets,” Sako is quoted as saying by the French daily La Croix. “I could no longer recognize anything.”