In 2015 I was invited by Archbishop Bashar Warda to northern Iraq, where the Diocese of Erbil was sheltering many thousands of people who had fled from the Nineveh plains to escape ISIS. Christians have lived in Nineveh for almost 2,000 years, yet in a matter of days were forced out of their towns and villages, often with nothing other than the clothes they were wearing.
When we arrived, the archbishop and his clergy were working unflaggingly to provide the displaced families with accommodation, food, healthcare and education in the relative safety of Erbil, while ISIS forces continued their rampage of looting and killing just a few hours down the road. Most of the people I met had lost everything and in many cases experienced terrible violence. Yet they showed an inspiring resilience and a determination to return home one day.
Two years on, they may finally have the chance. ISIS has been driven off the Nineveh Plains and some of the first Christian families have begun cautiously heading back. This is a story of resurrection and hope.
At the invitation of Archbishop Warda, I am returning to encourage this important Christian presence and witness. The simple message I bring to the Christians of Iraq is that they are not forgotten, as we continue to offer our prayers and support.
However, there are enormous challenges that still need to be overcome if they are to have any chance of rebuilding their lives there.
One of the most significant is that almost 13,000 homes have been seriously damaged or destroyed. Many were deliberately burnt by ISIS fighters, while others were levelled during fighting to retake the area. The result is that a large proportion of families who fled now have no habitable accommodation to return to.
Roads, water supplies, schools and clinics have also been wrecked. Dozens of churches, convents and monasteries, which have long been a central part of Christian life on the Nineveh Plains, were specifically targeted for desecration or demolition.
Earlier this year the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee was established by the region’s largest Christian denominations. It has already begun the long process of rebuilding. Yet it is calculated that the catastrophic scale of destruction could cost more than £180 million to repair, and so far work has been able to take place only on a small minority of properties.
The reconstruction effort therefore requires substantial international support. Governments, civil society and individuals all have a role to play. Nineveh’s Christians have the determination to return and the dedication to rebuild. We must help ensure that they have the resources to do so.
Another major concern is the security of those returning. The military operation against ISIS has left control of the Nineveh Plains divided among a patchwork of forces including the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga and various militias. On the ground tensions are running high. Roads between villages have been cut off by military checkpoints and there are reports of some troops seizing land, looting homes or abusing civilians.
There is also an ongoing threat of terror attacks. In other areas where ISIS lost territory it has resorted to bombings and murders, often targeting minority communities. To make things worse, the retreating fighters left behind explosive devices, which continue to pose a danger.
Here too the international community has an important role. In particular the Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional Government should be encouraged to protect families returning to the Nineveh Plains, safeguard their land rights, and give them a proper stake in decisions about their future.
Help with the clearance of explosives, monitoring the human rights situation and supporting local civil society needs to be provided. With ISIS effectively defeated on the battlefield, there is a danger that global attention to the situation in northern Iraq will begin to wane. This must not be allowed to happen because it is now, faced with political turmoil and an uncertain future, that people are particularly vulnerable. Hope lost today may never be regained.
This is a historic crossroads for the Christians of Iraq. Over the last 15 years, their numbers have fallen by more than half. Tens of thousands are still displaced. Without support to return safely to the Nineveh Plains and rebuild their homes, many are likely to leave Iraq forever.
That would be a tragedy, not for nostalgic or historical reasons, but because their presence is an integral part of the country’s societal fabric and essential for creating a more stable future. The Christian community’s deep commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation, which I witnessed first hand, is especially important as Iraq strives to emerge from decades of conflict.
At this pivotal moment our brothers and sisters need solidarity, prayers and support from around the world. For the first time since Christians were forced from their homes on the Nineveh Plains, there is an opportunity to help them return. We must not let it pass us by.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols is the Archbishop of Westminster. His latest book is Hope In Action: Reaching Out to a World in Need (SPCK)