Aid workers see movement toward Christian villages on the Nineveh Plain, but one activist declares Christian life in city to be over.
Iraq’s prime minister, Haider Al-Abadi, after declaring the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, urged Christians to return to the country’s second largest city.
Al-Abadi on July 10 called on “all displaced people and the sons of religions, nationalities and creeds [to] come back, including Christian brothers in particular, to their homes in Mosul” because “the natural response to Daesh is to live together.”
But, three years after most of Mosul’s Christians fled the Islamic State group’s takeover there, will they trust the situation enough to go back from their places of refuge in northern Iraq? One Christian activist doubts it.
“The liberation of Mosul applies just on the military level. It is under the control of the Iraqi government by now. But it doesn’t mean Mosul is liberated from the mentality, ideology, behavior, environment of Daesh,” said Father Emanuel Youkhana, using the Arabic slang for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. “In the city of Mosul there is still the environment and the culture and the mentality and the ideology of Daesh, which was present in Mosul before it was occupied by Daesh in 2014, and will stay in Mosul after the liberation on the military level.”
Father Youkhana, an Assyrian priest who runs the Christian Aid Program of Northern Iraq, spoke on the sidelines of a July 14 United Nations conference in New York on religious leaders’ role in combatting ideologies that can lead to atrocities.
“No Christian, no Yazidi will go back to the city of Mosul,” he said. Even before ISIS controlled Mosul, Christians were systematically attacked in the city, he said, noting that after 2003, Christians and their churches were paying money to Islamist groups who were controlling Mosul.
Father Youkhana said he visited the Assyrian Cathedral of St. Mary in Mosul in the wake of the city’s liberation. The cathedral is in a Muslim neighborhood, and is being used as a garbage dump, he said, in spite of the fact that Mary is a revered figure in Islam.
“And now, after three years of Daesh controlling every detail of life in Mosul, the feeling toward non-Muslims is even tougher, more radical,” he said. Once things settle down, Christians will return to claim their properties—only to sell them and move elsewhere, he predicted.
“Unfortunately, the 2,000-year old Christian town of Mosul, I would say with deep pain, is over,” he stated. “There is no single Christian or Yazidi young person who will go to study in a university in Mosul. There will be no Christian or Yazidi woman who will go to give birth in the hospitals in Mosul. What are the alternatives? There will be no Christian or Yazidi who will go to market his products from Nineveh Plain from his farm in Bashiqah or whatever, to go to the market in Mosul. They will not risk. So what are the alternatives?”
If Christian internally-displaced persons stay in Iraq, he said, they are more likely to settle in the historic Christian towns of the Nineveh Plain nearby, particularly in the northern part, which has been retaken by the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, and is controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government, which enjoys a degree of autonomy in Iraq.
“This is stable, and people are going back to places like Tel Eskof, Bashiqah, Bahzani, all these Christian and Yazidi towns,” Father Youkhana said. The southern part of the region, he added, which includes the Christian towns of Bartella and Bakhdida, is controlled by the Iraqi army and Shi’ite militia. “People are returning, but there are questions: What will be the future of them? Who will be in charge of security? What will be the administrative structure of Nineveh Plain?”
Father Youkhana argued for the establishment of a Nineveh Plain Province, “so that people can be convinced that they are not monopolized and not controlled by Arab Sunnis, to convince them that they are home and they have their future there.”
Meanwhile, 10 aid agencies are collaborating in the Nineveh Plain Reconstruction Project, to rebuild homes in towns and villages that have been recovered from ISIS occupation.
“There are seven or eight towns that were mainly Christian,” said Edward Clancy, of Aid to the Church in Need USA, one of the participating agencies. “Currently, there are about 95,000 Christians left from the 300,000 that fled from the Nineveh Plain. We’re doing our best to help them return to their homes.”
An Aid to the Church in Need analysis earlier this year found that there are about 13,000 homes and about 400 church properties in one of three states: those that have minor damage; those that are burned but still standing, and those that are completely destroyed. “The engineers estimated it will be about $250 million to repair or replace all the homes,” he said. “We don’t have the survey estimate on the church properties yet.”
Clancy said the Churches and the hierarchy are encouraging people to return to their homes. Most Christians IDPs in and around Erbil are no longer living in camps but in rented apartments, subsidized by the Church and aid agencies. But funds will dry up eventually. He said the Archdiocese of Erbil has found through surveys that people are leaning more and more toward returning to their towns and villages. In 2016, less than 5 percent said they would like to return. In April or May of this year, after the liberation of Nineveh Plain towns and villages, 41 percent said they wanted to return, and 47 percent said would consider it.
“Once there’s enough population [in the towns and villages], others will consider it,” Clancy predicted. “There will be a community there, the Church will be functioning, there will be schools.”
Hani El-Mahdi, the Iraq country representative for Catholic Relief Services, said that CRS has started to see some of the Christian IDP families moving back to the Nineveh Plain.
“They’re not huge numbers so far, but we are observing what will happen over the summer, particularly with the areas declared to be liberated,” El-Mahdi said. “They are still in need of massive assistance because they are returning to villages and towns that still need infrastructure assistance to rebuild their houses.”
El-Mahdi said that some areas on the Nineveh Plain are contested by the KRG and the central government in Baghdad, “so there’s a lot of anxiety for the long-term future. People need stability and safety to go back to those areas. This is contingent on reaching a lasting political agreement between the Kurdish government and the central government.”