AS THE Iraqi army continues to regain territory captured by Islamic State fighters in 2014, some Christians are beginning to see signs of normality returning to liberated lands.
Residents of the small town of Tel Kaif, in northern Iraq, close to the border with Turkey, clambered on to the dome of a church and fixed a wooden cross there. Inside the church, prayers were led by the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon and Archbishop of Baghdad, the Most Revd Louis Raphael Sako (News, 3 February).
One of those who had helped to put the cross back on to the church said: “We brought back part of our dignity. We are returning to our town and reconstructing our churches and all administrative offices.”
In the context of the widescale physical destruction carried out by IS, and the uprooting of thousands of families, the experience of Tel Kaif represents only a small step towards the restoration of normal life. An extensive progamme of removing unexploded ordnance, clearing, and rebuilding is awaited — a costly and time-consuming operation.
A Roman Catholic priest, Fr Andrzej Halemba, of the Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Middle East project, has carried out a survey of villages in the Nineveh plain which reveals the extent of the work that needs to be done.
ACN, in conjunction with the Chaldean Church in Erbil, is drawing up a reconstruction and renovation scheme which will eventually enable families to return to their homes. “More than half of the IDPs [internally displaced persons] are willing to return,” Fr Halemba says. “And this number keeps increasing. ACN will support, of course, the reconstruction. However, we have to work together with other charities. Alone, it is impossible to manage this.”
The Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, the Rt Revd Bashar Warda, said that he hoped that IDPs would, in time, be “able to return to the villages of their forefathers with hope and security”. Some IDPs who had visited newly liberated villages had been traumatised by the desecration carried out by IS — destruction that seemed “so personal in its hatred and anger that it dealt further deep and destabilising blows” to them.
Archbishop Warda said that ways would have to be found to continue providing support to IDPs in the Kurdish region of Iraq during a two-to-three-year transition period while reconstruction was carried out, “but we will need continued donor funds to achieve this”. IDPs were trying to survive “in an environment of conflict, recession, high unemployment . . . power cuts, landlords’ now seeking higher rent — all of this amidst political and religious uncertainty”.
The future of northern Iraq as a whole will remain uncertain until Mosul has been liberated. The Iraqi army, with air and ground support from the United States, has thus far has retaken the eastern half, and has the west surrounded. It would appear to be only a matter of time until IS forces have been driven out.
But the return of Mosul into federal government hands will raise other issues affecting northern Iraq. In particular, the Baghdad government is insisting that Iraqi Kurdish forces leave towns and villages that they have occupied since the IS offensive of 2014 and in the wake of the jihadists’ withdrawals over recent months.
Of particular concern is the city of Kirkuk, and the nearby oilfields. Kurds insist that Kirkuk historically belongs to them, while the Baghdad authorities say it is an Arab city.
There is also uncertainty over whether Shia militias which have helped to liberate Sunni Muslim and Christian areas in the north will withdraw completely. In the past, Sunnis have complained of mistreatment at the hands of these militias. Until such issues are resolved, stability will not be assured.