ROME – Nobody’s pretending that fallout from a Sept. 25th independence vote in Kurdistan hasn’t badly rattled the roughly 100,000 Christians of the Nineveh Plains, a region that straddles the border between Iraqi and Kurdish-controlled territory, and where Christians still carry the scars of being overrun, occupied and driven from their homes by ISIS in 2014.
“The tensions are very high, and the people are afraid,” said Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako of Iraq on Thursday.
“We don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” Sako said. “Those who have already started returning are now waiting with fear and uncertainty.”
Sako was speaking at a Sept. 28 Rome conference of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, a consortium of the three major Christian churches in northern Iraq dedicated to rebuilding villages and towns destroyed by ISIS and allowing roughly 100,000 Christians to return.
Some 93 percent of Kurds voted to break with Baghdad in the non-binding independence referendum, prompting Iraq to suspend all international flights into Kurdish territory and Turkey to threaten to shut off oil trading with the Kurds, potentially crippling the economy.
If Kurdistan continues to move towards formal separation, some fear a military response from Baghdad that could trigger a wider regional conflict. For the Christians of their area, that could mean their dream of going home is either further delayed, or perhaps just not in the cards at all.
Yet organizers of the reconstruction effort say despite the new clouds on the horizon, they’re moving full steam ahead.
“The help will still arrive, and it will still do good. It will help people still living in the refugee camps return to their cities, and that will definitely improve the situation from its current state,” said Philipp Ozores, Secretary General of Aid to the Church in Need, a pontifical foundation dedicated to aiding persecuted Christians and the principal sponsor of the reconstruction effort.
“All the funds that have been allocated for the project have been used perfectly well, through the coordination of the churches, which is independent of the geopolitical situation,” Ozores said.
“Funds will keep arriving, and much of the material is already there on the ground,” he said. “Most of the repairs that have to be done in the houses are not substantial. You don’t need a lot to make them livable again.”
The Nineveh Plains is an historic region of northern Iraq, divided between Iraqi and Kurdish-controlled territories. It was home to a series of ancient majority Christian villages and towns, until the area was occupied by ISIS in the summer of 2014. Most of the roughly 100,000 Christians fled, many for the nearby city of Erbil across the border in Kurdistan.
They’ve been living in refugee camps in Erbil ever since. Some have already left, seeking new homes in various foreign nations, including the United States. Most, however, have waited things out in the hopes of being able to return home.
After ISIS was driven out of the Nineveh Plains a year ago, many Christians did start going back, only to discover that their homes had been sacked, looted, and, in some cases, burned down. The same was true of churches, monasteries, schools, and places of business, with whole towns in a few instances basically lying in ruins. Project organizers say they’ve identified almost 13,000 homes damaged or destroyed, along with almost 400 churches.
As a result, the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee was formed in February 2017 as a joint enterprise among the area’s Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox churches, under the aegis of Aid to the Church in Need, which has launched an ambitious “Marshall Plan” for the Christians of the region to rebuild what’s been damaged or destroyed.
The rebuilding effort has drawn support from several major Catholic donors, including the Knights of Columbus in the United States, and is seeking public support from major global actors such as the United Nations and the European Union and countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom.
So far, according to Father Andrjez Halemba, the chair of the reconstruction committee, roughly 17 percent of the Christians of the Nineveh Plains have been able to return home thanks to the rebuilding effort.
Though tensions unleashed by the Kurdish vote could imperil the project’s future, Halemba said he looks at the situation less through the lens of realpolitik, and more from the point of view of the Gospel.
“I would say, love isn’t realistic,” he said. “It’s so incredible, but you can’t really predict it.
“I see the needs, I see suffering people, and I don’t think about whether it would be better to do it tomorrow or next week,” said Halemba, a Polish priest working for Aid to the Church in Need and a former secretary for the Polish Bishops’ Missions Committee.
“I have to do it now,” Halemba said.
Halemba stressed that one shouldn’t underestimate the resilience of the area’s Christians.
“Up to now, thanks to the help of our benefactors, we’ve been able to sustain 90,000 internally displaced Christians,” he said. “They’ve stayed. In 2014, when ISIS overran the plains, the idea was that there’d be no one left here, it would be a very small community. But no, 90,000 stayed and now want to go back.
“We can’t wait for the right moment to act,” he said. “The right moment is today.”
Stephen Rasche, a counselor to the Archdiocese of Erbil who serves as coordinator of the reconstruction effort, acknowledged that if the situation deteriorates, the reconstruction effort will become moot because Christians won’t want to return.
“Certainly, there’s a point beyond which work becomes impossible, and I think that point is when there’s open warfare, God forbid, among the different powers in the region,” Rasche said.
“If there’s major conflict, that’s the end for the Christians there. They won’t wait around to see this movie one more time,” he said.
Yet Rasche stressed that threats, intimidation and brinksmanship that don’t necessarily lead to such a major conflict are standard fare in the Middle East, and people learn to keep moving forward.
“Belligerent talk between parties is nothing new,” he said. “We think there’s still a period of time here in which hopefully we’ll see things settle down, and we’re urging the Western powers to be actively engaged to make sure that real war is prevented.
“As long as that happens, the rest of it just kind of comes with the territory,” he said. “We’ll figure out a way to do this.”
One international player that could bring influence to bear on the situation is the Vatican.
Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State and thus the pope’s top diplomat, spoke at the Thursday event, adding the Vatican’s support to the reconstruction effort.
“From the outset, the Holy Father has followed with deep concern the tragedy of thousands of families forced to abandon their cities and villages due to the invasion of this so-called Islamic State,” Parolin said.
“The reconstruction of houses and villages is the first and fundamental condition for the return of Christians to their own lands,” he said, insisting that the “right of return” is guaranteed in international law.
Parolin called on actors in the region to “create the social, political, and economic conditions to enable new social cohesion, favor reconciliation and peace, and give Christians and other minorities the possibility of rebuilding the future of a country where their presence is deeply rooted.”