In post-ISIS Christian town, heroism and paradox both abound

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John L. Allen Jr.
The ISIS-destroyed bell tower at the Church of Behnam and Sara in Qaraqosh, Iraq. (Credit: Crux/John Allen.)
QARAQOSH, Iraq – Over the centuries, the Middle East has always been a land where expectations tend to experience especially tough collisions with reality, so it probably should be no surprise that a massive effort to rebuild the Christian village which was the epicenter of a brutal ISIS onslaught in 2014 has, at its heart, three grand paradoxes.

Qaraqosh – or, as the 96 percent of the population that’s Christian call it, “Baghdeda”, because Baghdeda is Aramaic rather than Arabic and is part of a broader push to reclaim Christian identity here – was the largest Christian community on the Nineveh Plains, a swath of land that overlaps the border between Iraq and Kurdish-controlled territory.

When ISIS began advancing on the plains in 2014, virtually every man, woman and child, some 100,000 people in all, were forced to flee to the nearby city of Erbil, where they turned the Christian enclave of Ankawa into one of the world’s largest informal IDP camps, only in this case taking refuge with the local churches.

When the jihadist forces were driven back out of the Nineveh Plains three years later, a vast mobilization called the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project was launched to make possible the return of the Christian residents of the area by rebuilding their homes, schools, clinics and churches.

It’s a joint effort of the Syria Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean Catholic churches, and it’s supported by the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need, along with major grants from sources as varied as the Hungarian government and the Knights of Columbus. Considerable headway has already been made; in Baghdeda, for instance, some 2,000 homes have already been rebuilt, and slightly over half of the town’s pre-ISIS population of 50,000 has returned.

A worker at a construction site as part of the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project. (Credit: Crux/John Allen.)

(The Knights of Columbus are a principal partner of Crux.)

Christian ambivalence

One paradox surrounding what’s been described as the “Marshall Plan” of the Nineveh Plains is that, sometimes, the people it’s intended to benefit can be ambivalent about whether they actually want it. At times, speaking to Christians here can seem like being trapped in a music video by The Clash in the early 1980s, since the defining question often is: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

It’s not that people here aren’t deeply, forever grateful for the thousand and one ways in which the Church has come to their rescue, but for every one determined that no one’s going to take away their birthright, there’s another convinced there’s little realistic hope of a stable future and they’re ready to move.

That contrast is often especially strong among the young, and it’s illustrated in Qaraqosh 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 be rebuilt, but that it will be: “We’re saying to everyone that our people will stay here,” he told me. “We’re not leaving this land.”

Yet Basim, 21, has precisely the opposite instinct.

Basim happened to be living at school in Kikurk when the ISIS surge began, and at one point found herself hiding under her bed along with dormmates 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.

On Tuesday, 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 thinks the odds of getting all that are strong enough she’s willing to take a shot, she hesitates, and then finally concedes she wants to go to the United States or Australia.

“I think it’s better there,” she says.

These two reactions may initially seem logical opposites, but it’s important to remember that the fight or flight instincts are both rooted in the same experience of a perceived threat. A related paradox about reclaiming the Nineveh Plains for Christianity, therefore, is that radically different conclusions about its prospects reflect the exact same deep trauma that all Christians here have suffered.

The Mayor of Qaraqosh

At one point late on Tuesday morning, I found myself sitting in a conference room of project headquarters listening to Father Georges Jahola, a Syriac Catholic priest, deliver an overview of work accomplished and future plans.

Earlier, Jahola had shown us around his parish at the Church of Behnam and Sara, one of the churches most heavily damaged by ISIS. Among other things, he pointed out graffiti the occupiers had left behind, including “ISIS will remain forever according to the prophecy” and, inevitably, “Allahu Akbar.”

I’d experienced some of his star power in the region that morning, when along the road from Erbil to Qaraqosh we breezed through checkpoints manned by both Kurds and Iraqis who waved us through the moment they saw him at the wheel without any questions asked.

As I watched Jahola explaining a vast aerial photo of Baghdeda on the wall, then display housing recording, zoning materials, construction bills, and other mountains of documentation pertaining to the effort, a question stirred in me.

“Does this town have a mayor?” I asked.

Surprised, he had to wait for the question to be translated, and assured me that yes, not only is there a mayor, but they have very cordial relations.

The obvious follow-up was, “What does that guy do?”

Father Georges Jahola oversees work in progress in Qaraqosh, Iraq. (Credit: Crux/John Allen.)

In fact, there was no accurate map, no accounting for where people lived, no sense of what the total damage caused by ISIS was and what it would cost to rebuild, and certainly no plans to do so, until Jahola began working on it in 2017. (In fairness, I was told the civil mayor does attend a lot of ceremonial functions, many to mark the opening or completion of construction projects sponsored by the Church.)

Hence the second paradox of the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project: Although people here routinely complain that the central government ignores them, it’s sort of hard to know what would be left for government officials to do even if they got serious about it, other than perhaps starting at least to pay some of the bills.

Over a long conversation at project headquarters, Jahola acknowledged there had been some criticism at the beginning from Christians who wondered if it was really safe enough to go back, especially after a Kurdish independence referendum in September once again raised fears of renewed conflict.

“What they were saying was, ‘Safety first, then reconstruction’,” Jahola said. “But I told them it has to be the other way around: Once we rebuild, then we’ll be safe. If you go back as an individual, you’re weak. If we go back as a neighborhood, we’re strong.”

“Security doesn’t just come from the government or the army,” he said. “It also comes from us.”

Jahola was joined by Faraj Issa Yaqoob, the senior engineer on the work being done in Qaraqosh. Both take pains to explain the rigid controls used at every step along the way, ensuring that the people asking for money actually live in the houses they claim and intend to remain (should they leave, they have to either give the house to another exiled family or pay back the funds); that the work being invoiced was actually performed, and that it’s up to standards; and that people really do stay.

Among other things, rather than involving contractors in the process, the project only disburses funds to the homeowners themselves, and they’re responsible for getting the work done for the amount allotted. (The most chronic complaint after things are done, some of Jahola’s staff say, is naturally from people who think they didn’t get enough money.)

Both Jahola and Yaqoob were born in Qaraqosh, both have lived there their entire lives, and both exude an iron conviction that the place will be Christian forever.

“This place belongs to the Christians,” Yaqoob says simply. “They’re trying to take it, but we’ll fight them.”

Will it last?

At least for most Westerners, it would be hard to imagine spending vast amounts of time and energy, and at least some money – though staggeringly little by developed world standards – on building thousands of homes, in effect rebuilding entire towns, without any confidence those homes will last.

Miriam Basim and her mother, Basima Jerques, outside their reconstructed home in Qaraqosh, Iraq. (Credit: Crux/John Allen.)

Yet that’s the story here.

When I asked several young engineers, including Revan Habib, if they were sure they’d see this work through to the end, all expressed vigorous conviction that they’ll get it done. Yet when I asked the same talented, idealistic, and incredibly dedicated young people if they’re sure those houses will still be standing five years from now, all offered some version of “how could we know?”

“It’s not up to us,” he said. “It depends on others … it depends on America, on Europe, on Iran, on so many.”

In other words, there’s a deep conviction here that the future is not truly in their hands, and whether peace and prosperity will ever arrive depends on the judgments of forces they can’t control.

As we finished speaking, I snuck outside for a quick smoke break, and several of the young men soon joined me. They began peppering me with questions: “Do you think peace will come to Iraq?” “What are the Americans going to do?” Most plaintively of all, perhaps, was, “Do you think we’re safe here?”

Jahola seemed a bit a more sanguine. He too believes there’s a long-term regional contest being played out in his corner of Iraq, asserting that Iran has a clear strategy to bolster the Shiite presence here and to suppress the Christian community. For the time being, however, he doesn’t believe ISIS is coming back because, for now, he says, “the game is finished.”

The final paradox, then, is that the heart and soul of this reconstruction effort, supported by groups such as Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus, is formed by people deeply worried that all their efforts over time could once again go up in smoke.

They’ll do it anyway, they say, because they’re fighting for something that justifies the risk.

Yet even their leader, spiritual father and unelected mayor, Jahola, has his own way of hedging his bets. At one stage we were getting out of a car, and I asked if he really believes the other fifty percent of the population of Qaraqosh/Baghdeda that hasn’t yet returned will eventually do so.

Jahola took off his sunglasses, paused, and then flashed a smile: Inshallah, he said, a very Middle Eastern way of saying you really shouldn’t be overly confident about anything.

In post-ISIS Christian town, heroism and paradox both abound