NEW YORK — Church bells rang as soldiers affixed a homemade cross at the summit of a dome of a church in the newly liberated town of Bartella, once home to more than 20,000 Iraqi Christians. Yet even as soldiers searched its empty streets and homes for booby traps, mines and snipers, offering prayers of thanksgiving in its burned out churches, questions of Bartella’s future, as well as that of the many villages and their former inhabitants of northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, have tempered the joy of the liberators.
“We are going to face a new challenge with liberating Mosul,” said Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, during a visit to CNEWA’s New York offices yesterday.
“How are we going to convince them to go back to their villages?
“We need a plan. We need some good, concrete plans,” he added.
Since the expulsion by ISIS of more than 120,000 Christians from their homes to the Erbil region of Iraqi Kurdistan in the summer of 2014, the Chaldean Archeparchy of Erbil has coordinated the care for the well-being of these “Internally Displaced Peoples,” working with international aid agencies — including CNEWA — and the religious and clergy of the various churches affected by the rise of the extremist group.
The church works “to provide the necessary needs — shelter, education, health, food packages — and be with them, and try to comfort them in their material needs and their spiritual and pastoral needs,” the archbishop said in an interview with Catholic News Service last week.
But more is needed for the long-term. People need “social intervention and political intervention, economic intervention and, most importantly, how we are going to reconcile all those divided groups which will remain, and they’ve been called to live together?”
The social service activities of the churches for the IDPs of the Nineveh Plain and Mosul have included care for all those in need — not just Christians — including Shabaks, Turkmen and Yazidis. But Iraq remains a fractured nation, its various communities fearful of the instability.
“Certain conditions, certain guarantees, have to be met to prevent this from happening again,” said an Iraqi priest of the Church of the East, Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana, during a recent visit to CNEWA, of those families considering returning to their homes should ISIS be pushed out and defeated.
“How do we restore coexistence and mutual trust?” he asked, adding that the post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi government had failed to bind the diverse nation together, ignoring the existence of Iraq’s considerable non-Islamic minorities even in children’s text books.
“The sense of loss is profound,” he said, noting that, overnight, Christian communities founded by the apostles on the soil stained with the blood of martyrs lost their shrines, their relics and their patrimony. Families were uprooted, perhaps forever.
“We share in the liturgy and in the sacraments,” he said of what binds all Iraqi Christians together, “we share all, as seeds of hope.”
Despite the instability and the uncertainty of the theatre in Iraq, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, said its president, Msgr. John Kozar, “is committed to accompanying Iraq’s churches, investing in their people and programs as they live out the Gospel mandate to love one another.”
CNEWA is actively supporting Christians and suffering minorities throughout the Middle East, particularly those displaced by ISIS and other extremists in Iraq and Syria.