Editorial: There’s a ray of hope in northern Iraq

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In northern Iraq, bishops representing three Christian churches have laid groundwork for thousands of Christians who were displaced by war to go home and rebuild their lives in the Nineveh Plain. CNS photo/Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters
By Catholic Register Editorial

As civilian deaths mount in Mosul and as Pope Francis appeals to combatants to spare innocent lives in the “beloved Iraqi nation,” a small ray of hope has emerged not 85 km away in the city of Irbil.

There, bishops representing three Christian churches have laid the groundwork for thousands of Christians who were displaced by war to go home and rebuild their lives in the Nineveh Plain.

This culturally mosaic region in northern Iraq is the ancestral homeland for several ethnic and religious groups, including Yazidis and Christians who mainly worship as Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and Assyrians. All were forced to flee by the tens of thousands in 2014 when the Nineveh Plain was overrun by genocidal ISIS fighters.

Following that terror campaign, which saw the region’s Christian population reduced to 200,000 from a 2003 peak of 1.5 million, there were fears that Christianity might disappear forever from lands Christians have occupied since the time of the apostles. But ISIS is being driven back and now there is hope. Catholic bishops from the Chaldean and Syriac rites have joined with their Syriac Orthodox counterparts and, with support from the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), they are co-operating on a pivotal plan to rebuild Christian homes. The task is huge.

More than 12,000 houses in Christian villages across the Nineveh Plain have been destroyed or damaged, according to an ACN study. Rebuilding them will cost $250 million or more, which seems extreme until weighed against the possible loss of 2,000 years of Christianity in the region.

This resettlement initiative deserves international encouragement and support. Almost five million Iraqis have been forced out of their homes. About a quarter million of them have gone abroad but the rest are displaced in Iraq or living as refugees in bordering nations. An ACN study found that 87 per cent of these Iraqis either want to return or would consider returning to their homes if the region was safe.

Helping them do so and ensuring their security should be a priority. It is the optimal solution to a migration crisis that has spilled across the Middle East and into Europe. Bringing these people home is what Iraq and Syria will both need to begin the arduous journey of social and economic reconstruction. It also assures a Christian future in the region.

The re-settlement initiative launched by the regional bishops offers an encouraging model. If this ecumenical project is successful, if the Nineveh Plain can be repopulated with the Christians and, eventually, the Yazidis and other minorities that were so brutally oppressed, it gives hope to millions of displaced Iraqis and Syrians that one day they may also make it home.