John L. Allen Jr.
Aghata Marogy Eshaz, a Chaldean Catholic from the village of Batnaya on the Nineveh Plains, and one of her granddaughters. (Credit: Crux/John Allen.)
ROME – Though Catholicism is always full of drama, which is what makes it so utterly fascinating, some things are more dramatic than others. While 2018 is only halfway over, my early nominee for the most compelling Catholic storyline of the year comes from Iraq and the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project.
Inés San Martín and I just returned from a week on the Nineveh Plains and we saw the miracles unfolding there, in one of the world’s toughest environments to be a Christian.
For centuries the Nineveh Plains were considered a Christian stronghold in the Middle East, anchored by a series of traditionally Christian villages. In fact, when ISIS first arose, many experts toyed with the idea of encouraging Christians from elsewhere to move there as a “safe haven.”
Yet when ISIS arrived in 2014, things changed overnight, as more than 100,000 Christians were forced to flee and their villages were gutted, with churches, monasteries, businesses and private homes torched, torn down, or badly defaced.
Today, however, those towns are rising from the ruins, and many Christians, though not all, are coming back. Places with names such as Qaraqosh, Teleskof, Karamless, Alqosh, and others, are once again thriving Christian communities, with big plans for the future.
All this is thanks to the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project, organized and led by the local churches, and backed by donors such as the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus.
(The Knights are a principal partner of Crux.)
The determination, courage and vision of these Christians is awesome to witness, and it provides one with fresh hope that perhaps Christianity isn’t destined for extinction in the land of its birth after all.
Yet speaking with these Christians, especially members of the younger generation, it becomes clear that rebuilding their homes, however essential, doesn’t mean it’s “job over” in terms of persuading them to remain. It’s more akin to a point of departure, not a destination.
Over and over, what San Martín and I heard are that two things are required if idealistic and deeply faithful young Christians are going to stay here and try to make a go of it: Security and jobs.
Twenty-year-old Rashel Groo, a Chaldean Catholic from Qaraqosh and a computer science student at Ankawa’s new Catholic University, is a typical example. She’s smart, motivated, with good English and a bright future, exactly the sort of person who could help anchor the future here – and right now, she’s planning to get out.
“If I could find a good job here to build a life, maybe,” she said. “But why should I stay here without that?”
When young Iraqis say they need “security,” they don’t just mean a temporary absence of fighting, although right now that feels awfully good. What they mean is that if they decide to start a family here, or to open a business here, they’d like some reasonable confidence that their families will still be safe in ten years’ time, and that their businesses, assuming they prosper, will still be standing.
At the moment, none of them feel that confidence. The great paradox of the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project, in fact, is that it’s being led and implemented with missionary zeal by a host of people who have no idea if the fruits of their labor will endure.
In such a context, the striking thing isn’t that many young Iraqi Christians have left and others want to – it’s that so many others have made the choice to stay, despite it all.
A return of ISIS isn’t the only thing Christians here fear, but rather the weight of more than a century of repeated bouts of regional conflict and sectarian violence, all of which came to a head post-2003, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq made life for Christians infinitely worse.
Beyond security, employment is critical. Christians are suffering in a special way from the general Iraqi economic stall, and the best and brightest in the young generation are looking down the road with anxiety. If there’s no realistic prospect of opportunity here, a growing share of these young Iraqi Christians, who have both the education and the drive to succeed anywhere, are going to seek those opportunities elsewhere.
The fact of the matter is that neither security nor jobs are going to be supplied to these Christian areas by the Iraqi government if left to its own devices. There’s a long history of neglect, coupled with short-term political calculations, to suggest that only sustained international pressure and investment will do the trick.
When the last of the more than 13,000 Christian properties destroyed or damaged by ISIS is rebuilt, therefore, it will not be the day when the work here is done. That will only come when a future has been built, which means the rest of the world cannot simply walk away and congratulate itself on having brought local Christians this far.
Why should we care? The best answer I heard all week came from Father Gabriel K. Tooma, the pastor of another Christian village on the Nineveh Plains, whom we met over lunch in Teleskof.
“I think the day will come when we’ll read in history books that once there were Christians here,” Tooma said. “It’s not too late, and I hope something will be done, but time is running out.”
“The world owes these people [of the Nineveh Plains] an historical debt,” Tooma said. “The Church started here, and these people carried it for centuries. They gave us countless spiritual treasures. The Church as we know it wouldn’t exist without the sacrifices these people have made.”
“All that means there’s a debt,” he said, “and now it’s time for the world to repay it.”