Father Thabet with residents of the northern Iraqi town of Karamles
Father Thabet with residents of the northern Iraqi town of Karamles

It’s been a year since Karamles was liberated from Islamic State group (IS) militants.

It was one of the Nineveh Plains towns east of Mosul that fell to IS as it advanced across northern Iraq in August 2014.

The occupation forced Christian families to flee for safer cities like Erbil, 40 miles further east.

The return of families to Christian-majority towns like Karamles has been slower than anticipated. Many still fear for their safety, with Muslim extremism that pre-dated the IS offensive partly to blame.

Amer*, a middle-aged man from nearby Mosul, told World Watch Monitor in 2016 that he had seen his city change long before IS arrived. “It wasn’t the buildings that changed; nothing you could see. What changed was what lived in people’s hearts,” he said. An estimated half a million Christians fled Iraq in the 10 years before IS swept across the Nineveh Plains in 2014.

But hope remains and more people are returning every day, according to Father Thabet, who returned to Karamles in November 2016, less than a month after its liberation, and triumphantly erected a new cross on a hill overlooking the town.

Speaking from his Chaldean Catholic church, which was damaged during the IS occupation but is being restored, he said returning Christians “are here in our house, our home, our town. The number of [returning] families increases day to day”. He said this gives him great joy. Talking about Chaldeans, he said: “If the international community and Iraqi government will be with us, to [look after] our rights and to protect our identity, the future will be very, very good.”

In June the government announced that a school in Karamles will reopen after the summer holidays. During a poignant visit to his old school, 12-year-old Noeh said “there is still a lot to be done” but “if the government says we have to go back to school here, of course we will”.

The recent vote on independence for Kurdistan might have consequences for Karamles and other towns in the Nineveh Plains. The Plains are not technically in Kurdistan but the Kurds want it to come under their governance. Christians in the area are split over the independence issue, with some fearing a continued dispute over the area might spark another civil war.

Father Thabet said people returning to Karamles stopped for a few days around the 25 September independence referendum but, since then, it “continues”.

*name changed for security reasons