Three building sites have been consecrated in Iraqi territory liberated from Islamic State as part of an ambitious plan to facilitate the return of Christians eager to rebuild their homes.
The first group of Christian families who were driven from their homes in the Nineveh Plains by Islamic State (IS) in summer 2014 are being helped to return by a committee of locally represented Churches and the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
The Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC) has been formed by the Syriac Orthodox, and Syriac and Chaldean Catholic Churches, and is tasked with planning the reconstruction of almost 13,000 Christian houses destroyed by IS on the Nineveh Plains.
On 8 May, ACN’s General Secretary Philipp Ozores presented olive trees to 35 Syriac Orthodox families in the church of Mor Shmuni in Bartella, where some 1,451 houses belonging to Syriac Orthodox families need to be rebuilt or repaired.
Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Timothaeus Mosa Alshamany said at the ceremony: “We are waiting for reconstruction. Returning to our cities is even more difficult than fleeing from them.”
ACN said the olive trees were to be planted near the recipients’ homes, with the message to “put back roots in the villages they were born in and bring fruits of peace and reconciliation”.
A similar ceremony took place in Karamlesh, where 20 families were presented with olive trees in a Chaldean church that was partially burned down by IS. Some 754 houses need to be repaired in Karamlesh.
In Qaraqosh, where more than 6,700 homes need to be repaired or rebuilt, Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche reportedly had to wait for the applause to end several times before he could continue with his homily. Speaking in Althajra Cathedral, he said: “We stand by our decision to return … We must persevere, because this is our soil and our heritage.”
In the cathedral, which in 2014 was set on fire by IS so that the smoke would confuse American military aircraft, 50 further families were presented with olive trees.
A survey of displaced Christian families by ACN in March suggested that 41 per cent wished to return to the Nineveh Plains. However other Christians are continuing to pursue asylum applications outside the Middle East, convinced the government in Baghdad, or their former neighbours in and around Mosul, can no longer be trusted.
There are also divisions among those wanting to return to Iraq. Last Friday (12 May), three Syriac bishops (one Syriac Catholic and two Syriac Orthodox) in northern Iraq issued a statement asking for the creation of an enclave in the Nineveh Plains region, under international protection. However the Chaldean Church distanced itself from their request.
Another olive tree ceremony was held on 13 May in the village of Tel Skuf, where 1,268 houses of Chaldean Catholics need to be repaired or rebuilt. The charity said that 500 Christians families have already returned to Tel Skuf.
Ewelina Ochab, a human rights lawyer who has visited the area, said some 430 families had already returned to the town of Tel Skuf.
She added that each village and town would have to be cleared of the rubble, bullet cartridges, IS flags and “any other reminders of Da’esh ever being in the area”. Writing for Forbes.com, she added that services such as water and electricity were vital in encouraging families to return.
However some aid workers and academics have voiced concern that efforts to rehabilitate areas as quickly as possible should not undermine the work of collecting evidence that can be used to prosecute perpetrators of the crimes committed by IS during its occupation of the area.