Displaced Iraqi Christians are determined to return to their homes in areas liberated from ISIS, according to the bishop who has led the relief effort during their period of exile.
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil described how some of the 100,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Kurdish northern Iraq had already begun preparations to return to the ancient towns and villages in the Nineveh Plain.
However, the archbishop underlined the difficulty of Christians returning to nearby Mosul which is still under ISIS control, but he added that many of the faithful originally from the city still held out the hope of returning one day.
In interviews with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Warda said: “People have not yet returned [to Nineveh] because of the operation to secure Mosul and the [subsequent] reconstruction plans. There is definitely a will to return after it’s secure. People have started [their] preparations.”
He added: “People have been holding prayers and celebrations. Some priests went to liberated villages – with soldiers. They [villagers and priests] sang hymns to the victorious Cross.”
But the archbishop recognised the many obstacles to be overcome before the displaced people in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, and Dohuk and elsewhere can realistically return to their homes in Nineveh up to 40 miles away.
He said: “Security, the clearing of sites and reassurance [for Christian families] is all important but, despite [these] on-going concerns, there is hope.”
While Archbishop Warda was hopeful of Christians’ returning to Nineveh, he was cautious about Mosul, especially in the short term.
The archbishop said: “Mosul is a difficult case, with the need to secure the city, clear the site of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and then the reconstruction of the area.”
On Wednesday morning, Iraqi forces said they were advancing on the southern approach to Mosul, a front where they have been making slower progress than to the east, reports the Associated Press.
The Commandeer of the Mosul Operation, Lt Gen Abdul-Amir Raheed Yar Allah, said in a statement that Federal Police Forces have retaken four villages near the Hamam al-Alil area.
Archbishop Warda thanked Aid to the Church in Need which has provided ongoing emergency aid – food, medicine, shelter and schooling – for the IDPs since they left Nineveh and Mosul in summer 2014.
He said: “I thank you and ask for your continued prayers. I ask you to celebrate the [liberation] of towns and villages in Nineveh and to continue raising awareness of the plight of suffering Christians in Iraq.
“I also ask your support for the construction of schools, the homes of Christian families and some churches in the towns of Bartella and Karemlesh in the Nineveh Plains [that have been damaged] by air strikes.”
Highlighting the danger of unexploded ordnance (IEDs) in the region, he also said: “The concerns for [all these villages] are all one package: security, social, political and economic, not just one single issue. Most churches are burnt but some [remain] in good condition. Most churches have had insults and graffiti written on the walls.”
Neville Kyrke-Smith, Aid to the Church in Need UK’s national director, who visited Erbil in September with UK MPs and who met Archbishop Warda, said: “Thanks to our benefactors, the charity has been able to sustain our Christian family in Iraq, both in body and soul at this time of their most severe need.
“I am reminded of the promise of Genesis: ‘Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.’”