As the U.S.-backed coalition against the Islamic State group continues its campaign in Iraq, there is a window of opportunity for Christians in the Middle East to return to their homes and keep Christianity from becoming extinct in the region.
But now is the time to grab that opportunity, says a missionary who has worked in Iraq for almost seven years.
“This is a very important moment for the Church in Iraq because if we can’t rebuild their homes all of them are going to leave the country,” Father Luis Montes said in an interview.
And if that happens, the region will lose an important witness to the power of mercy and forgiveness, he said.
Father Montes, who is vicar to the Kurdistan region for Archbishop Jean Sleiman, the Latin-rite archbishop of Baghdad, estimates that 200,000 to 300,000 Christians are left in Iraq. When he arrived in the country in 2003, there were about a million and a half.
A native of Argentina and ordained a priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word in 1996, Father Montes has spent all of his priesthood in the Middle East. He is now based in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan where many Christians from Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plain, their home since the early years of Christianity, took refuge from the invading Islamic State in 2014. Widespread destruction of homes and churches was carried out during and after the ISIS occupation of the region, but now the Church is working hard to rebuild cities on the Nineveh Plain, Father Montes said.
“Most Christians who are still in Iraq would like to go back to their houses,” he said. “The problem is the cities are destroyed. The church is fundraising to rebuild their homes.”
The one very big exception, he said, is the city of Mosul, which the Iraqi government declared to be liberated from ISIS earlier this year. Its largely Sunni populace was “tired of the politics of the Shia government of Baghdad, so they received anyone who could change that,” Father Montes said. “When ISIS went there they opened their houses to them. … The Sunni tribes had weapons; they could reject them, but they didn’t. … The Islamic State took the city with no more than 2000 attackers.”
National Public Radio, in a report Monday that examined life in Mosul post-liberation, noted that a lot of Iraqis believe that people in west Mosul particularly invited ISIS in.
“On the west side they are simple people and close-minded — most of them are from the villages around Mosul or from Tel Afar,” Federal Police General Hafedh al-Ta’ie, responsible for security in west Mosul, told NPR. “The ISIS mentality was more prevalent on the west side than the east.”
Father Montes agrees that the Church has no future in Mosul. Christians don’t want to live in a city where most residents are sympathetic to ISIS, he said.
But thousands of Christians are returning to cities and towns on the Nineveh Plain, the area to the north and east of Mosul. About 500 Christian families made a joyous homecoming to the town of Qaraqosh (also known as Baghdeda), the largest of Nineveh’s Christian towns, on September 10. Priests and people holding olive branches processed through the streets chanting hymns in Aramaic, Aid to the Church in Need reported. The Catholic charity has been funding the reconstruction of many of the homes on the Nineveh Plain.
Father Andrzej Halemba, who organized the ceremonies, distributed to each family olive tree saplings symbolizing the Christian families’ return to their roots. Father Halemba, Aid to the Church in Need’s Middle East projects coordinator, urged residents to forgive those who invaded their homeland.
About 2,500 families are expected to be back in Qaraqosh by the end of September.
“If we can rebuild their homes, most of them will stay, and some who went abroad will come back,” Father Montes predicted. “If we cannot help them now they are going to leave, and this is going to be a disaster. The Christians in Muslim countries are the ones preaching with their lives and examples about forgiveness and charity. In the Quran God has 99 beautiful names, such as the Almighty, the Pure, the Provider. But God is not father, God is not love. So the Christians in these communities are like the yeast of the forgiveness and love. So their presence there is very important. That’s why the world should help them now, not in a few years.”
In spite of the region’s conflicts, Father Montes believes he is in “the best place on earth.” Iraq is “poor in every sense, but we have the martyrs. We have Christians who are persecuted for Jesus,” he said. “So we have the strength of God in the hearts of the weakest. As a missionary I am ashamed because I am receiving more than what I am giving to them.”