One morning last March, Mgr Nizar Semaan got a phone call that in an instant would change his life forever. “Congratulations,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “You have been chosen to be Archbishop of Mosul.”
For Mgr Nizar, these words, uttered by Ignatius Joseph III Younan, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East for the Syriac Catholic Church, came as little less than a bombshell.
Syriac Catholics form part of Iraq’s mosaic of ancient Oriental Rite Christians decimated in mid-2014 after ISIS seized Mosul and forced the expulsion of minorities under threat of execution. The church bells fell silent for the first time in 1,800 years.
Two years on from the defeat of ISIS, the recovery of the Christian presence in Mosul remains a distant prospect. Christians who might consider returning are still shunned by their former Muslim neighbours, a problem compounded by the massive task of rebuilding churches and homes.
But the challenges for Mgr Nizar do not end there.
Although nearly half of Christian families have returned to the nearby Nineveh Plains following their expulsion by ISIS, the task of rebuilding towns and villages has been fraught with setbacks, including the influx of hostile militia and the government in Baghdad’s reported refusal to finance infrastructure redevelopment.
The impact of these years of ongoing suffering on the people is very real for Mgr Nizar, despite the fact that he left Iraq more than 23 years ago.
Explaining that he himself is from Qaraqosh, the largest of the Christian towns in Nineveh, he said: “When Daesh [ISIS] invaded I lost my own family home which I knew from when I was a child. It was burnt inside and partially destroyed.”
His family joined the 120,000 Christians who fled Nineveh on the night of August 6, 2014, escaping invading ISIS forces and finding sanctuary in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq.
Many of them lived in Erbil, reliant on Aid to the Church in Need and other organisations for food, shelter and medicine. After three years, the Semaan family joined thousands of others who returned home after the military defeat of ISIS.
But disaster struck when Mgr Nizar’s older brother, Talal, grew sick and died aged 62. Grief-stricken, his father died just over a month later.
All this happened about the time Mgr Nizar learned of his new appointment as archbishop, and it goes some way to explain why he hesitated before agreeing to take on the role.
“If I thought of my own personal interest, I would have said no,” he said, highlighting his 14 happy years based at Holy Trinity Church, Brook Green, in west London. “But I thought God has called me for this service – no more, no less – and so I must say yes’”
What, then, is his pastoral priority?
“The biggest challenge is to rebuild the human person,” he said. “The human person is destroyed psychologically when he loses everything he has worked all his life
Mgr Nizar said that recovery depends first of all on the building of homes. “To rebuild psychologically, you have to rebuild physically,” he said.
He paid tribute to Aid to the Church in Need, one of the main organisations behind the reconstruction of more than 6,300 homes rebuilt since ISIS were ousted from Nineveh in autumn 2016. However, with many homes still uninhabitable and the house repair scheme less than halfway to completion, Mgr Nizar stressed the need to continue with the task in hand.
Another key objective is employment. “Focus on job creation is key,” he said. “The people cannot manage their expenses if they don’t have a job.”
Progress on homes and employment can only succeed, according to Mgr Nizar, if the Iraqi government does more to protect the rights of Christians and other minorities. And for this to happen, the West needs to apply pressure.
An appeal of this kind echoes the call of Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, who met Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt in London last month and renewed his request for Government aid for Christians and other minorities in Iraq.
But, while quietly optimistic, Mgr Nizar is a realist. Christians in Iraq are reported to have declined from 1.5 million before 2003 to fewer than 130,000 today, and against a background of uncertainty some are still leaving.
For the archbishop, part of the problem is perception. “There is a presumption in the West that there are only Muslims in Iraq,” he said. “But in fact, Iraq is like a big garden with different flowers – different colours and different fragrances. The West needs to understand that it is this diversity which makes Iraq such a wonderful country.”
Mgr Nizar highlighted the place of Christians, saying: “Christians in Iraq are known as being honest people, a people who work hard for the future, who encourage education and who build up civilisation.
“And so Christianity is like a candle in a dark room. No matter how small the flame, the Church still sheds light. If that light is taken away, we will have darkness in the Middle East.”
As Mgr Nizar takes up his crozier and puts on his mitre, he will need all the light he can find if he is to lead Christians in Iraq towards a brighter future.
John Pontifex is head of press and information at Aid to the Church in Need (UK). For more information, visit acnuk.org