When I first met Martin Banni in 2014, he had just fled northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, which had been seized by ISIS in a single night. Arriving in Kurdish northern Iraq, the future priest and 120,000 others were entirely dependent on the charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and other organisations for help.
Now that ISIS has been forced out of Nineveh and is suffering losses across the region, there is an urgent need for Fr Martin and the displaced community to return to their homelands while they have the chance.
But preparing the way is a huge task. The relief the displaced communities felt after ISIS left Nineveh last autumn quickly turned to shock when they saw the devastation the Islamists had left behind.
Since then, ACN has developed plans to repair and rebuild, and the people’s confidence has begun to return, with more than 80 per cent now interested in returning home.
Essential to this is repairing homes. Although as many as 12,900 homes were damaged, nearly two thirds received only partial damage and the charity has plans to repair as many as possible.
The challenge is to introduce the scheme alongside ACN’s existing commitment to provide emergency help for displaced communities in Kurdistan.
Since the displaced families took refuge in the semi-autonomous region, 46 per cent of emergency help (food, shelter, medicine and schooling) delivered through the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil has come from ACN.
Neville Kyrke-Smith, the national director of ACN (UK), says: “The benefactors of ACN have been wonderful in their tremendous response, providing help for Iraqi Christians driven from their homes.”
ACN project partners have repeatedly asked the charity for help, reporting that the UN provided limited help when the crisis broke, including some tents and other emergency aid.
As the repair bill for the return of Christians and other minority groups to Nineveh continues to rise, ACN has been working with other mainly Christian charities to appeal to the British Government to offer assistance.
Calling on it for help, Kyrke-Smith says: “There is a critical need to help the Christians survive and to begin to return to their villages in Nineveh. It is now or never. If more help is not provided, this moment of opportunity will have passed.”
Church leaders want the Christians to re-establish themselves quickly so they are a recognised as a major constituent group in the political settlement in Nineveh post-ISIS.
Soon after the Islamists left Nineveh, it emerged that Christians had a better chance of resettling in northern Nineveh, which has fallen under Kurdish influence, than in the south, where the Baghdad federal government has asserted military control.
But while the political future of Nineveh is under review – amid plans for a possible referendum on Kurdistan independence in September – Church leaders stress the need for Christians to reclaim their presence, including in areas where so far their return has not been welcomed by the occupying forces.
Stressing the need for resettlement at the earliest feasible opportunity, Stephen Rasche, aid relief funding manager for the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil, has repeatedly highlighted the risk that, without significant progress with the “Right to Return” scheme, the displaced community could lose heart and abandon the region.
“The future really does hang in the balance,” he says. “Much of it depends on the continued support and assistance that [Iraqi Christians] receive from the West over the next 12 months.”
For ACN, the urgency of the situation could not be clearer. With the charity’s ongoing commitment to catechesis, Mass stipends for priests and support for seminarians, ACN is determined to help the faithful replant the faith back in the soil toiled by so many generations of Christians.
As a token of this, ACN presented olive trees for Christians to plant close to the homes of the first 105 houses the charity is renovating, in the towns of Bartella, Qaraqosh and Karamles.
In Karamles, the new saplings – replacing ones destroyed by ISIS – stand not far from the Chaldean Church of St Addai. It was from this church that, just hours before ISIS forces appeared in 2014, Martin Banni took the Blessed Sacrament away, whisking it to safety.
Ordained as priest only last autumn, Fr Banni has now been able to bring the Blessed Sacrament back to St Addai’s.
This was a poignant moment that symbolised not only the return of the Catholic faith to the region, but also the priest’s intention to encourage the people – living stones of faith – to return to their home town.
John Pontifex is head of press and information at Aid to the Church in Need (UK). ACN is appealing for funds to help Iraqi Christians go back to their Nineveh homeland. For information or to make a donation, contact Aid to the Church in Need, 12-14 Benhill Avenue, Sutton, Surrey SM1 4DA. Tel 020 8642 8668; or visit acnuk.org
This article first appeared in the July 28 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here