Enough indifference toward those suffering...

Enough indifference toward those suffering for their Faith!


Colosseum Bathed in Red Light to Remember World’s Persecuted Christians, Initiative of Aid to the Church in Need.

“There are millions of people in the world who are suffering for their faith, and we pretend as though it were nothing,” the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, denounced to Zenit on Saturday, February 24, in front of the Colosseum illuminated in red.

Even if historians cannot definitively say whether the most famous monument had Christians martyred there, the effect of those mighty walls all dyed red, the color of the blood of the martyrs, yesterday and today, was evocative.

“A very touching event, because it moved us with situations of great pain, great suffering and also great faith, with the intent to shake us out of indifference,” was how Cardinal Parolin described it to Zenit.

Among the hundreds of millions of people who still suffer discrimination or, worse, persecution because of their religious faith, the most numerous are undoubtedly Christians. To them, the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need has dedicated the gesture of illuminating with red light simultaneously, three symbolic places of ancient and modern Christian martyrdom, connected to each other via Skype: the Colosseum in Rome; the Maronite cathedral of St. Elias, in Aleppo, Syria, whose roof was destroyed by bombings; the Chaldean church of St. Paul in Mosul, Iraq, where on December 24, the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldean Catholics, Louis Raphael I Sako, celebrated the first Mass after liberation from the Isis.

But the catalog of countries hostile to religious freedom and in particular to Christians, drafted each year by “Aid to the Church in Need”, goes far beyond Syria and Iraq. There is Pakistan, from where Ashiq and Eisham, arrived in Rome. They are respectively the husband and fifth and last daughter of Asia Bibi, sentenced to death in 2009 for alleged offenses to the prophet Muhammad. Asia’s only ‘crime’ was that she drank water from the same glass as some Muslim women.

Now she is in prison, in isolation. Only a 15-minute meeting is allowed each month for Ashiq and his five children. The last time her children saw her outside the prison she had tied to her neck a belt, ‘like a dog,’ stripped and bleeding, Eisham said, bursting into tears.

Another of the testimonies offered to the public while the Colosseum lit up red is that of Rebecca Bitros, 28, a Nigerian, kidnapped by the Islamic terrorists of Boko Haram, who raped and tortured her only because she is Christian, before she managed to free herself, two years later. Then she gave birth to the son of one of her jailers.

When the militia of Boko Haram assaulted her village, she preferred to surrender herself to them along with her two children, allowing her husband to escape, otherwise he certainly would have been killed. From the years passed in prison, she remembers the rosary she had with her that she recited, the constant threats of the terrorists, the continuous beatings, the killing of one of her two sons thrown into a river, trying to force her to deny her faith and embrace Islam.

Both Rebecca and the relatives of Asia Bibi had been received on Saturday morning by Pope Francis at the Vatican.

“I think of your mother very often and I pray for her,” the Pope told Eisham. For Pope Francis, Asia Bibi and Rebecca are two “martyrs,” he said during the meeting which lasted 40 minutes, compared to the 15 initially planned in the dense agenda of the Pope, as reported by the director of Aid to the Church in Need, Alessandro Monteduro.

Today’s Christian martyrs are “victims of the propagation of a mentality that does not make room for others, which prefers to suppress rather than integrate them, in order to not put in question their own convictions,” said Cardinal Parolin in his speech: “Only by returning to God, the source of the dignity of every human being, can we become peacemakers and reunite societies broken up by hatred and violence.”

At the event under the Colosseum was also the president of the European Parliament, Italian Antonio Tajani, to affirm that “Europe must continue to make its voice heard. We must not lower our guard because the less we talk, the more the freedom of Christians in the world is trampled. It is a question of freedom, of defending the values ​​of our identity as Europeans. We must neither be resigned in the face of these acts, but neither must we renounce acting against them.”

For the general secretary of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, “The blood of the new martyrs is a condemnation of the superficiality with which we live the faith, too often reduced to appearance, to ceremonies that are not binding, containing pious but irrelevant words. It is sad to see the intermittent compassion of some humanitarian agencies, according to whom, there is violence to condemn, while others can be ignored.”

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary and international president of ‘Aid to the Church in Need’, gave the last address, in which he urged for an overthrowing of “the walls of death, starting with that of our indifference; we cannot fail to hear the cry of all the ‘Abels’ of the world ascending to God.”

‘Aid to the Church in Need’ has already promoted other similar events by illuminating in red, famous monuments such as the Trevi Fountain in Rome, the Parliament and the Cathedral of Westminster in London, Christ the Redeemer of Rio de Janeiro, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre in Paris and finally the Cathedral of Manila.

According to a report by this Pontifical Foundation on “Persecuted and Forgotten?” Christians between 2015 and 2017, the persecution of Christians today is more serious than in any other historical period. The report speaks of persecution in Egypt, Iran and India and of the extreme degree of persecution in Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Sudan.


Because of your help, we still have Christians in Iraq

Three years after being forced out of their towns and villages by extremist group Daesh (ISIS) – many thousand of Iraqi Christian families have the opportunity to return to their homes  in the Nineveh Plains.

The very fact that they have this chance to return home is due to Aid to the Church in Need and our  benefactors who have sustained them, materially and spiritually, while living as a displaced community in Kurdish northern Iraq.

These persecuted Christians continue to need our prayers and commitment as the road back home while filled with Hope and Joy remains fraught with difficulties, very real and often life-threatening difficulties.

Difficulties notwithstanding real progress has been made and in being made and for this reason Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil writes to thank Aid to the Church in Need and its benefactors ‘for the help you have given us, to our brothers and sisters in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains. Because of your help, we still have Christians in Iraq…’ 

Aid to the Church in Need’s Middle East expert Fr. Andrzej Halemba is in no doubt about the importance of what we what we are doing to retain a Christian presence in this the cradle of Christianity. ‘This is a decisive historical moment. If we miss this opportunity to help the Christians return to their homes on the Plains of Nineveh.’ 


This article can be found in Mirror 0218.


Showing God’s Love and Mercy - Syria

In the city of Homs the Daughters of the Mother of Mercy are really living up to their name.

The fighting has ceased in the city. But the town still looks like a battle site. The Syriac Catholic Sisters’ convent was among the destroyed buildings. So they have moved to Zaidal, a suburb of Homs where there is a large Christian community. And their presence is desperately needed here.

They care for everyone, giving catechetical instruction, helping in the hospital, visiting the elderly and lonely, caring for the families.

They want Zaidal to be a place of mercy, a place where in showing God’s love and mercy in Homs Christians no longer need to live in fear. But who will care for the Sisters themselves?

Where will they live and pray in peace?

The three Syriac Sisters found a flat to live in, and took a loan so that they could buy it. But now they need our help, as what they really need is a house so they can expand their activities. The flat was just a first step to develop their work.

We have promised them help, and  we must respond to the merciful love they are showing to others.


This article can be found in Mirror 0218.


Christ’s Light in Syria’s Darkness

Over 100 young people have gathered in a small building opposite the Greek Orthodox Church of Mar Elias in northern Aleppo. They are all wearing dark red polo shirts with the image of Christ Pantocrator and the logo of the Orthodox Youth Movement.

Most of these young people are university students working as volunteers, and the movement is a charity which is helping around 2,200 Christian families in Aleppo who have been plunged into poverty as a result of the war.

‘We are also helping 1,700 Muslim families, providing them with clothing, food, medicines and accommodation for those who have lost their homes in the bombings’, explains Elias Faraj, a retired civil engineer who is coordinating the aid programme.

Aleppo is the city that has suffered most of all as a result of the civil war. After five years of warfare and despite the fact that the bombs finally stopped falling last December, the city is still without electricity most of the time and the water supply is still very limited. ‘Our future is still very uncertain, and the crisis will continue for a long time yet, I fear’, Faraj confesses.

Today the group of volunteers is being visited by Father Andrzej Halemba, a Catholic priest and the head of the projects section for the Middle East of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

After the various introductions and words of thanks on the part of the leaders of the movement, Father Halemba is delighted to be able to talk to the young people and encourage them in their work and daily life. ‘You are the hope of Syria, you are the light in the midst of so much darkness’, he tells them. Deep emotion shines in the eyes of these young men and women. At the end they all stand up and together recite a prayer in Arabic.

‘ACN helped us back in 2015 for providing medical supplies at the same time supporting 700 families in distress each month.’, Elias Faraj tells us.

‘We are extremely grateful for this aid, and grateful for this visit by Father Andrzej, because it gives us hope and courage to continue working here

This crisis has made us still more united and encouraged us to collaborate more closely together between our different Churches, for we are the same Body of Christ’. 

These young people, leaders and volunteers of the Orthodox Youth Movement have also suffered the consequences of the war. Yet despite this, they continue their work of helping those in still greater need.

Elias Faraj himself is an example of this. He has been responsible for the social aid section of the organisation since 2011, when the civil war first broke out in Syria and before the conflict extended to Aleppo.

Soon after he he was abducted for three days and his family were forced to pay a ransom and were lucky to get him back alive. One of his sisters was shot in the leg while walking in the street and came close to losing her leg. ‘But I have forgiven them. There are some who think that I am stupid for having done so, but I do forgive them. This is the true freedom that God gives us.’

For Joseph Abdo, a third-year medical student at the University of Aleppo, his reason for joining the organisation was the fact that ‘they are helping people in different ways. It has been a good experience for me because it is teaching me to give to others what I myself have received.’ 

Speaking about the future of his country, he says, ‘I am longing for peace, first of all. Our generation is the one that is going to have to rebuild the country. I believe that it is our goal to work together to rebuild our community.’ 

Standing beside him is a young woman, Gadan Naflek, another of the youth volunteers. ‘I am helping with the schooling of young children aged 3 and 4. It makes me really happy to be able to help other people, and I am learning to love and to give to others what I myself have received.’ 

And these young people do not forget to thank us for the aid provided by ACN. ‘All the aid we are given, no matter how small, is doing a great deal of good and is very necessary’, adds George Juri, aged 24, who has recently graduated in civil engineering.

These young people have seen the horror of war from close up. The exploding bombs and the din of combat have been the soundtrack of their lives for over five years.

Rosa Iwas, a university student in her second year of studying English literature at the University of Aleppo, tells us, ‘When I go to church, I pray to God for peace and for the needs of all the people living round about me. Without our faith it would be very difficult to continue here.’ 

ACN has been working together with the Orthodox Youth Movement since 2015 and has recently promised support for three different aid projects. These include the provision of essential medical supplies for 2,200 Christian families and the cost of gas, electricity and bread for the support of 700 of the most needy families in Aleppo.


This article can be found in Mirror 0817.


Syria - The quality of mercy unites Christians

The civil war in Syria is one of the worst catastrophes of modern times. Some 350,000 people have been killed, while 5 million have fled abroad and another 6 million have been left homeless as internal refugees in their own country.

In the first few months of this year alone, 1,159 children died during the bombings. Death came suddenly and violently to many families as the bombs fell. And each time a little bit of future was buried with them. But there is also another, slower death, when families cannot escape but lack the barest necessities. Then children and babies die of malnutrition. This is where the ACN-sponsored initiative ‘A drop of milk’ comes in.

It began in Aleppo, where 80% of the population had already fled and where most of those who were left survived only thanks to the food parcels from various aid agencies. These parcels came in all shapes and sizes, but most contained no milk for children.

So the aim of this project is to provide a regular supply of milk for children under 10, and not just in Aleppo. Around 2,600 children between one and 10 are getting milk powder and 150 babies under a year receive special formula milk.

But it is not only about vitamins and calories; every drop of milk is a drop of mercy, which not only nourishes the child but also the mother’s heart. It nourishes hope, hope that their children will, after all, have a future in their own homeland.

This regular milk distribution is made without regard to religion, with so many different Christian denominations and other faiths here in Syria. So the programme also has an ecumenical dimension – ‘it unites us Christians, writes Dr. Nabil Antaki of the so-called ‘Blue Marists’ – a group of religious brothers and lay volunteers working with the refugees. But every drop costs money, as do the procurement, storage and distribution of the milk. We need around €16,800 each month.

In summer the helpers have to cope with searing heat, and in winter with biting cold. Right now an icy wind is cutting through the bombed-out buildings. Oil and petrol are scarce, the electricity supply is only intermittent, and expensive too.

The cold means sickness, and sickness means medicines. It is better to find the money for the heating, which means that people can work, repair what they have, forge a future.

In recent years we have helped many refugees survive the winter. But blankets alone are not enough. The generators have to be kept going, at least a few hours a day.

With your material help and your prayers let us continue to demonstarte to the world that the quality of Christ’s Mercy is not strained and His Grace is ever bountyful.


This article can be found in Mirror 0817.


Iraq - Majid’s return home to Nineveh

‘I really want to go back to the city of my birth, Qaraqosh,’ says a smiling Majid Shaba (45), who runs a fast food establishment in Erbil.

‘When ISIS invaded Qaraqosh I had to leave the city, in which I was in charge of a fast food restaurant, Chefcity. I didn’t leave my city out of my own free will. My new restaurant in Erbil has been doing reasonably well, but you simply cannot compare life in Erbil to life in Qaraqosh: it is not a good alternative. That’s why I want to return to Qaraqosh, to the Nineveh plains: I was born there, I want to live and die there. Qaraqosh is my city.’

Majid has been in the city of his birth for three days to make his house ready to live in. Today, his wife Asmaa Alias (40) has also arrived from Erbil, along with their children Dima (10) and Shaban (4). Their oldest son, Yousif (14), stayed behind in their temporary house in Erbil’s Christian neighbourhood Ankawa. ‘I long to live in Qaraqosh again,’ says Asmaa, smiling.

Samir Alias Polis (49), his wife Thaira Alias Karromi (43) and their three children are helping their brother and sister-in-law to clean their house. Samir works as a cleaner in Erbil and found temporary shelter in an apartment of the Church. ‘The militias are strong,’ he sighs, scrubbing the pavement. ‘I’m not sure we are safe’. He is not as enthusiastic as Majid about returning and sometimes he thinks about moving abroad.

Majid still has a lot of work to do in his fast food restaurant ‘Chefcity’, where things are still quite a mess. In the neighbouring house, Raafat Foufael (32) and his uncle Badry Sloulaka (62) are working hard to put order in the mess that the jihadists left behind.

Before the occupation, the building was used for hosting parties. Couples raised their glasses to their marriage and danced in the dancing hall. Raafat shows us the special bench for the newlyweds. ‘Luckily, it has been spared,’ he says. ‘The toilets have also not been damaged; they are merely covered in a lot of dust. Sadly, the hall and the stairs had been set on fire.’

The air-conditioning in the hall is blackened and on the ceiling are miserable steel pipes. The bar with the tap, on the first floor, has been damaged and will need fixing. Raafat hired workers to renovate and clean the place as soon as possible.

Majid is determined to open the doors of his restaurant as soon as possible as well. ‘I don’t receive any support with the renovation, but that won’t stop me from restoring my restaurant’s honour,’ declares Majid with determination. ‘Chefcity in Qaraqosh will open its doors again.’

‘I don’t approve of Christians leaving the Nineveh plains,’ ponders Majid.

‘I believe you shouldn’t leave your birthplace and you shouldn’t leave your homeland. People don’t have to leave this area because of their safety, because ISIS is in the past now. We now possess our own army that can protect us. I have a good feeling about the future.’

Since 2014 and up to September 2017 ACN has provided over €34 million for projects in Iraq.


This article can be found in Mirror 0817.


Iraq - Rebuilding Souls in Nineveh

Those who believe, live differently. ‘Faith pertains essentially to the future; it is promise of future glory’, Joseph Ratzinger wrote back in 1970. Faith means life lived in a spirit of trust. It betokens the certainty that God is the one who guarantees our human future.’

The Christians of Iraq’s Nineveh Plains are filled with this spirit of trust. Rooted in faith, they look to the future. This is the symbolic meaning of the olive tree. Each of the 554 families who have returned to Qaraqosh and Bartella has received a small olive tree. In solemn procession, they carried them back to their partially rebuilt villages.

Returning to their roots does not simply mean going back to a particular place. It also means going back to love, back to reconciliation. The olive tree also symbolises this. During a Mass for the returning Christians, a bishop blessed the trees, and the name of each family was read out.

Everyone understood that the rebuilding of their houses was just a beginning, only the first step. Their most challenging task will be to rebuild souls, removing the wreckage from hearts, clearing away hatred and fear and reconciling with their neighbours. To do this they will need faith in Jesus, the source of all love, as this allows them to look towards the future with hope.

These families have seen faith put into action; they have experienced love. When they were fleeing, intent on simply surviving, ACN helped them with food, blankets and medicines and thereby saved tens of thousands of these Christians.

The solidarity, the support, the mercy expressed in these deeds, gave them the courage to go on living. ‘It was as important as our daily bread’, says one father of a family, and a Dominican Sister from the convent of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Teleskov adds, ‘Now it is a matter of “as we forgive those who trespass against us”’. 

These Sisters now need to rebuild their ruined convent. We have promised to help them. ‘The families need us’, says Sister Luma, quite forgetting everything the Sisters themselves have endured over the past few years – the expulsion, and flight, the destruction of their convent, and the death of 14 out of the 70 Sisters of her congregation.

The Sisters are confident, for the Christian Churches of the Nineveh Plains have joined forces with ACN to coordinate rebuilding work in the region. They need to rebuild thousands of family homes, hundreds of churches, parish centres, schools and doctors’ surgeries.

For ACN this is our biggest aid and reconstruction programme in recent decades. The Islamists drove people from their homes, burned down their houses, hacked down the trees – but their roots remain in the ground, just like the roots of the people’s faith and trust in God. And it is to these roots that the Christians of Nineveh are now returning.


This article can be found in Mirror 0817.


Come to Jesus - Mass Stipends

Thanks to the 1.5 million Mass stipends collected around the world, every minute nearly three Masses are celebrated for the intentions of the benefactors of ACN.

Even in Syria, in the suffering city of Homs, they have continued to celebrate Holy Mass daily, often to the sound of falling shells. They keep in mind the words of the holy Curé of Ars,

‘It is not necessary to speak much in order to pray well… We know that Jesus is there… Come to Holy Communion; come to Jesus. Come, to live from Him, so that you may live with Him.’ 

And Syriac Catholic Archbishop Philippe Barakat of Homs writes with gratitude, ‘How greatly these Mass stipends help us to survive as Christians. Above all now that our already poor diocese has been bled dry. The needs of our priests and faithful cry out to heaven. We beg you, pray for peace!’

This year we sent 1,020 Mass stipends to Homs, as well as 935 to Multan, in Pakistan, 3,500 to the diocese of Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine, and hundreds of thousands to Africa. Recently, a priest in France left all his possessions in his will to provide Mass stipends for other priests around the world.

He had understood what Jean Marie Vianney taught: without the sacrament of ordination, without priests, the Church would be no more than a humanitarian charity. It is our priests who transform it into the Body of Christ; hence they are ‘one of the most precious gifts of divine Mercy’. Your Mass stipends are a form of thanksgiving for this great gift. So let us be generous with our Mass offerings!


This article can be found in Mirror 0717.


Nineveh: ‘I want to rebuild my life’

I don’t understand how people can harm each other so much,’ sighs security guard Louis Petrus. Louis has just returned to his hometown for the first time: the Christian city of Qaraqosh, near Mosul, which he had to flee on 6 August 2014, when Islamic State (IS) occupied the city.

‘Look at my house: it is damaged, most of my furniture has been stolen and my household effects are broken. Other inhabitants of Qaraqosh had prepared me for what I would find in the city. I had heard stories and seen pictures of the destruction caused by the jihadists. Now that I am seeing the city with my own eyes, I do not know what to feel. The IS terrorists have destroyed a lot of my possessions, but I am still quite well off, considering the damage that I can see in my neighbours’ houses: many houses have been burned or even completely destroyed. I have been blessed.’

Fr. Sharbil  Eeso a 72-year-old Catholic priest has also just returned home to the liberated city of Qaraqosh, which he was forced to leave on 17 August 2014. It is chaos in the seminary and the associated office. In their search for hidden treasures, IS militants tore down ceilings, destroyed statues and trashed the place.

‘We are not allowed to clear up the mess yet,’ he says, while he shakes off the dust from his recently recovered priestly headwear.

‘First, the damage needs to be assessed carefully and documented thoroughly, and that can only start when the city is safe. Just the other week, a young 13 year old jihadist emerged from the tunnel system which IS has built underneath the city.’

During their occupation the jihadists enthusiastically desecrated the Catholic churches in Qaraqosh, going so far as to writing battle instructions on the walls and transforming St. George’s Church Syrian Catholic into a bomb factory. When the town was liberated, hundreds of bombs and grenades, of all shapes and sizes, were found lying there, waiting to be fired.

Also discovered in the Church were the recipes needed to turn the chemicals which were stashed in the Church into deadly explosives.

‘Despite all the damage, I have hope for the future,’ says Father Sharbil smiling.

‘If our security is guaranteed, Christians can continue to live in Iraq. Our fellow  Christians in the West should do their best to keep us safe. I want to return to Qaraqosh when there is electricity and water again, although I think that safety is the main condition for returning.

Louis Petrus also firmly intends to return to Qaraqosh:

I don’t want to leave Iraq, unless all the inhabitants stay away and leave. But if two or three families return to Qaraqosh, I will too. This is my country. As soon as it is safe in the city and we receive permission to live here again, I want to rebuild my life in Qaraqosh. This is my place, I shall remain here until I die.’

The Assyrian Member of Parliament Yacoob G. Yaco travels to liberated territory almost on a daily basis, to stay informed on the progress at the front and the security situation in the liberated territory. As one of the five permanent Christian members of the Kurdish parliament, Yacoob represents the Iraqi Christian community.

‘There is a lot of unrest among Iraqi Christians. The Kurds support Iraq in their battle against IS and the recapture of Mosul and the surrounding cities and villages. The inhabitants appreciate that, but many of the Christians suspect the Iraqi government of giving the Kurds land in return. 

The Kurds dig deep canals and build high fences that, according to them, are meant to stop IS. In the meantime, the Kurds and the Iraqi government deny being promised territory for support and they assure the Christians that no deals were made about the land. But the canals and fences are not built on Kurdish land, but on the Nineveh plain. Many Christians suspect that this border is not temporary, but the start of a permanent border correction.’

‘We really want to return to Qaraqosh, with our children,’ says the mayor of Qaraqosh, Nisan Karromi (59). However he points out that since the jihadists had no respect for life or property ‘it will be a long time before all damages will be repaired.’

‘Some of the townspeople lost everything because of the IS invasion, others have had their house burnt and some are even less fortunate, even though everyone had to leave this city for over two years. 

We not only have to reconstruct and rebuild this city, but we also have to help the people and their families recover from the damages they have suffered. Since the Iraqi government remains in crisis, we must rely on the international community to help us make Iraq habitable again.’ 

‘Before we can start picking up the pieces, the damage will have to be carefully recorded’, explains the mayor.

‘Besides, we cannot start to rebuild, because the security service suspects that there are still IS warriors in the passageways beneath the city. Not every house has been searched yet for the presence of those secret passageways. Recently two foreign-looking jihadists were identified in Qaraqosh, but they disappeared before we were able to arrest them.’

In the meantime, Manal Matti visits the blackened church of the Immaculate Conception. She is surprised by the mannequins that are spread out across the church grounds, shot through with bullets.

‘The jihadists used the church as a shooting range and the mannequins as targets,’ she tells us, horrified. ‘The mannequins are completely riddled!’ 

Manal Matti used to run a beauty salon, just steps away from the church. She ponders: ‘I do not know when I will ever be able to see the inhabitants of Qaraqosh coming again to my beauty salon.’

 

Adapted from an earlier article prepared on behalf of Aid to the Church in Need by Jaco Klamer.


This article can be found in Mirror 0617.


John Pontifex - Replanting the Faith in Nineveh

When I first met Martin Banni in 2014, he had just fled northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, which had been seized by ISIS in a single night. Arriving in Kurdish northern Iraq, the future priest and 120,000 others were entirely dependent on the charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and other organisations for help.

Now that ISIS has been forced out of Nineveh and is suffering losses across the region, there is an urgent need for Fr. Martin and the displaced community to return to their homelands while they have the chance.

But preparing the way is a huge task. The relief the displaced communities felt after ISIS left Nineveh last autumn quickly turned to shock when they saw the devastation the Islamists had left behind.

Since then, ACN has developed plans to repair and rebuild, and the people’s confidence has begun to return, with more than 80 per cent now interested in returning home.

Essential to this is repairing homes. Although as many as 12,900 homes were damaged, nearly two thirds received only partial damage and the charity has plans to repair as many as possible.

The challenge is to introduce the scheme alongside ACN’s existing commitment to provide emergency help for displaced communities in Kurdistan.

Since the displaced families took refuge in the semi-autonomous region, 46 per cent of emergency help (food, shelter, medicine and schooling) delivered through the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil has come from ACN.

J F Declan Quinn, the national director of ACN (Ire), says: ‘The benefactors of ACN have been wonderful in their response to providing help for Iraqi Christians driven from their homes.’

ACN project partners have repeatedly asked the charity for help, reporting that the UN has provided only limited help since the crisis broke, some tents and other emergency aid.

As the repair bill for the return of Christians and other minority groups to Nineveh continues to rise, ACN has been working with other mainly Christian charities to appeal to the national Governments and multi-national agencies to offer needed assistance.

Quinn points out that ‘there is a critical need to help the Christians survive and to begin to return to their villages in Nineveh. If more help is not provided, this moment of opportunity will be lost.’

Church leaders want the Christians to re-establish themselves quickly so they are a recognised as a major constituent group in the political settlement in Nineveh post-ISIS.

Soon after the Islamists left Nineveh, it emerged that Christians had a better chance of resettling in northern Nineveh, which has fallen under Kurdish influence, than in the south, where the Baghdad federal government has asserted military control.

But while the political future of Nineveh is under review – amid plans for a possible referendum on Kurdistan independence in September – Church leaders stress the need for Christians to reclaim their presence, including in areas where so far their return has not been welcomed by the occupying forces.

Stressing the need for resettlement at the earliest feasible opportunity, Stephen Rasche, aid relief funding manager for the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil, has repeatedly highlighted the risk that, without significant progress with the ‘Right to Return’ scheme, the displaced community could lose heart and abandon the region.

‘The future really does hang in the balance,’ he says. ‘Much of it depends on the continued support and assistance that [Iraqi Christians] receive from the West over the next 12 months.’

For ACN, the urgency of the situation could not be clearer. With the charity’s ongoing commitment to catechesis, Mass stipends for priests and support for seminarians, ACN is determined to help the faithful replant the faith back in the soil toiled by so many generations of Christians.

As a token of this, ACN presented olive trees for Christians to plant close to the homes of the first 105 houses the charity is renovating, in the towns of Bartella, Qaraqosh and Karamles.

In Karamles, the new saplings – replacing ones destroyed by ISIS – stand not far from the Chaldean Church of St. Addai. It was from this church that, just hours before ISIS forces appeared in 2014, Martin Banni took the Blessed Sacrament away, whisking it to safety.

Ordained as priest only last autumn, Fr. Banni has now been able to bring the Blessed Sacrament back to St. Addai’s.

This was a poignant moment that symbolised not only the return of the Catholic faith to the region, but also the priest’s intention to encourage the people – living stones of faith – to return to their home town.

 

John Pontifex is head of press and information at Aid to the Church in Need (UK).


This article can be found in Mirror 0617.