For the Christians of northern Iraq, this Easter is their third separated from their homes. But for some, it could mark the beginning of the end of their displacement, following military victories against Islamic State that have won back much of the territory the jihadists seized three years ago.
“Next week, after Easter, we hope to make a start with rebuilding some houses in Karamles,” Fr. Thabet, the local Chaldean Catholic priest, told World Watch Monitor.
Karamles was a majority-Christian town until the arrival of Islamic State in 2014 caused them and thousands of other non-Sunnis across the Nineveh plains to flee for their lives. Of those Christians who have not sought asylum in the West, some are too scared to return without large-scale security, while others are keen to get on with salvaging all they can.
For the first time in three years, the congregation of Karamles’ Chaldean church celebrated Palm Sunday together, in their own village, and not in the refugee camps of Erbil in Kurdistan.
Last October, after Karamles was liberated, the priest said he found his church “a mess, but … not beyond repair”.
Last week, Fr. Thabet explained: “We cleaned the church in the week before Palm Sunday and did some small repairs. We also used the priest’s house as a centre and used a small generator [for electricity].”
This enabled the congregation to return for the Palm Sunday celebrations and an outdoor lunch, although they had to return to Erbil afterwards.
“About 400 to 500 people went to Karamles,” said Fr. Thabet. “Some by small buses, but many also by their own transportation. After the Mass we shared lunch together on St. Barbara’s Hill.” The hill is significant for Iraqi Christians because it is named after a pagan ruler’s daughter who converted to Christianity there in the 4th Century.
“Seeing all the people made me cry,” Fr. Thabet continued. “I was very happy to return and celebrate Mass [there] … It is very significant for me and for many people from Karamles.”
Holy Week previously involved the whole village, and the six-hour Easter Vigil spilled out onto the streets. “In Ankawa [the suburb of Erbil in which they live] it is a different situation and the celebration is smaller. We also celebrate it more in the complex and not on the street,” Fr. Thabet said.
“Every day and all the Stations [of the Cross] during Holy Week are important to me. Each day has a special spiritual theme and ceremony and we follow the traditions in our church and village.”
The congregation marked the rest of Holy Week in Ankawa, but Fr. Thabet added: “We hope we can celebrate [all of Holy Week and Easter] next year in Karamles.”