"We want to say that Christians belong here," says head of Islamic volunteer group in Mosul. "They have a rich history here."
Before Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, was liberated from the Islamic State group, some Christians felt that even without the presence of ISIS, they could never go back. Even without the formal rule of the jihadist organization that had set itself up as a caliphate, an Islamist ideology would perdure in the city, making it impossible for Christians to live there, they felt.
Now there are signs that those fears are unfounded, and it is young people — Christians and Muslims — who seem to be offering hope for a new way forward.
“Mosul and the Nineveh Plain have started a slow path of rebirth after years of sectarian violence and jihadist rule through initiatives that bring together Christians and Muslims, especially young people,” reported AsiaNews, which is published by the Pontifical Foreign Mission Institute (PIME). Fr. Paul Thabit Mekko, head of the Christian community in Karamles, said there are many examples of this cooperation, such as Sawaed al-Museliya, young Muslim volunteers helping to clean churches and wiping away the traces of the Islamic State. It is, he said a sign “of the spirit that prevails in a large part of the population.”
Muslims “are working on clearing, cleaning and restoring churches because they think they will bring Christians back to the region,” Fr. Mekko said. “The groups are small, mostly young people, full of good will, trying to undertake positive initiatives.”
At the Syriac Catholic Church of St. Thomas in Mosul, which was looted by ISIS, young volunteers were busy cleaning away debris. The work “is a message to [Christians:] ‘Come back, Mosul is not complete without you,'” said Mohammed Essam, co-founder of one volunteer group. “We want to say that Christians belong here. That they have a rich history here.”
Fr. Mekko said that in a few days, some young Muslims will take part in the restoration of the cathedral of the Chaldeans in Mosul. Such deeds “are evidence of a change in mindset and help others to join the path of dialogue and exchange,” he commented.
For Mekko, who has cared for thousands of families who fled in the summer of 2014 following the rise of ISIS, the process of reconstruction starts with young people, “who have undertaken an increasing number of projects and initiatives since Mosul’s liberation.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also been a point of cooperation between Christian and Muslim groups, who are “doing their utmost to set up sites for isolation and quarantine, bringing food, medicine, and essential items,” the priest added.
Until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, about 45,000 Christians lived in Mosul, Fr. Raed Adel, in charge of the city’s Syriac Catholic churches, told the Arab Weekly.