Iraq’s biblical challenge
John L. Allen Jr. and Inés San Martín
The town of Karamlesh in northern Iraq as seen from the top of Santa Barbara Church, once used by ISIS snipers to keep people out of the town during their occupation of the region. INÉS SAN MARTÍN
As part of a new editorial partnership, Crux is now providing exclusive reporting and analysis on the Catholic Church for Angelus News from around the world — including Kurdistan, Iraq, where John L. Allen Jr. and Inés San Martín visited this month to report on the plight of Christians struggling to recover from ISIS genocide.
ANKAWA, Iraq — Supposedly, history doesn’t repeat itself. Yet on Iraq’s Nineveh Plains today, it sort of seems to be, as, for the second time, a “Marshall Plan” is bringing a region devastated by war back to life.
In this case, the “Marshall Plan” in question takes the form of the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project, launched in 2017 to rebuild a series of traditionally Christian towns that were destroyed by three years of occupation by ISIS.
Backed by the Hungarian government and Catholic organizations such as Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus, and against all odds, it’s actually happening, as once-thriving Christian towns such as Qaraqosh, Teleskof, Karamles and Alqosh are being reborn.
Granted, the original Marshall Plan was addressed to all of Western Europe, not just a region of one country. On the other hand, it succeeded after the war was over and the threat had receded, whereas on the Nineveh Plains, a region of northern Iraq that overlaps the border with Kurdish-held territory, the fighting may have taken a holiday, but nobody believes the danger has gone away.
Once upon a time, the Nineveh Plains, where the Bible says Jonah once converted the Ninevites, was considered a Christian stronghold in the Middle East. When ISIS first arose, there were actually some who thought the U.N. might designate the area a protected zone for Christians and encourage Christians in other areas of Iraq to relocate there.
That illusion was shattered in October 2014, when ISIS made a major push into the Nineveh Plains and occupied the entire area, pouring into Christian settlements and burning houses and churches. Virtually all the Christian residents fled, most taking refuge in the Ankawa neighborhood of nearby Erbil.
There, the Archdiocese of Erbil flung open the doors of church properties, which turned overnight into impromptu tent cities. The historic Church of Mar Elia, for instance, hosted more than 1,000 displaced persons, living in converted shipping containers that delivered bone-chilling cold at night and suffocating heat during the day.
When ISIS was finally driven out of the area, three Christians churches in the area — the Chaldean Catholic Church, Syriac Catholic Church and Syriac Orthodox Church — joined forces, with the backing of international donors, to assess the damage.
The sheer scale of the challenge was stunning:
— 1,233 Christian houses totally destroyed.
— 3,502 Christian houses burnt.
— 8,217 Christian houses partially damaged.
— 34 Church properties wiped out.
— 132 Church properties burnt.
— 197 Church properties damaged in some way.
Undaunted, the reconstruction project was launched, and today it’s basically a success story — Teleskof, for instance, is almost entirely rebuilt and on its feet.
According to Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean leader of Erbil, all this reflects a vision of a Christianity in Iraq that not only survives but thrives.
“The whole Middle East is disrupted by violence, corruption and political disruptions. It’s corrupted by sin. It’s Jesus who will forgive this sin and heal these wounds. Who is going to give Jesus to this troubled and corrupted Middle East but the Christians?” he said.
“I would say no, we should really be awaking to this mission.”
The great paradox of the project, however, is that the same people who are making it work with almost missionary zeal, also display real ambivalence about whether the fruits of their labors will last.
That contrast is often especially strong among the young, and it’s illustrated in the town of Qaraqosh (also known as “Baghdeda,” its Aramaic name, to the 96 percent of the population that’s Christian there) by Revan Habib, a young engineer, and Miriam Basim, who’s studying engineering at a university in the nearby city of Mosul.
For Habib, 28, the idea of leaving his home is almost literally unthinkable.
“I love this land. My family, the people I love are all here,” he said, speaking at the local headquarters of the reconstruction project that he serves as an engineer, making assessments of proposed projects and helping to generate cost estimates.
Habib exudes strong conviction in saying that not only must Baghdeda — which was once the largest Christian community on the Nineveh Plains — be rebuilt, but that it will be: “We’re saying to everyone that our people will stay here,” he said. “We’re not leaving this land.”
Yet even Habib, when asked if he thinks the housing he’s working so hard to complete will still be standing 10 years from now, stared into the distance, and finally said, “I really don’t know.”
It’s worth noting that a return by ISIS is not the only worry for local Christians. They’re also trapped in a three-way power game involving the Iraqi government, the Kurdish Regional Government and Iranian-backed Shiite militias just a few miles away, and it’s impossible to predict if, or when, those dynamics might once again put the Christian minority at risk.
Basim, 21, isn’t willing to wait around to find out.
Basim happened to be living at a school in Kirkuk when the ISIS surge began, and at one point found herself hiding under her bed along with roommates as the sound of fighting drew alarmingly close.
She and her parents now have returned to Qaraqosh after taking refuge in Erbil, and they’re among the fortunate ones whose homes needed only light repairs.
She ticked off her requirements for what it would take to convince her to stick around after she finishes her studies: 1) employment, meaning good jobs; 2) security, meaning a long-term absence of violence; and 3) infrastructure, meaning decent roads, schools, shops and so on.
When asked if she thought the odds of getting all that are strong enough, she was willing to take a shot. She hesitated, then finally conceded she wanted to go to the United States or Australia.
“I think it’s better there,” she said, adding she has no real confidence the safety her family presently enjoys in Qaraqosh will last.
That, perhaps, is why the “Marshall Plan of the Nineveh Plains” seems so utterly impressive: Even its most passionate advocates wouldn’t be so foolish as to insist that one day, sooner or later, they won’t have to do it all over again.