Christianity will be reduced to a token presence in Iraq – unless more families are given aid to return to their villages on the Nineveh Plains, according to a priest helping them home.
Father Salar Kajo of the Churches’ Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC), which aims to rebuild nine Christian towns and villages, fears that unless more is done to enable displaced Christians to go back to their homes – and soon – they could leave Iraq.
According to the NRC, 37,031 Christians have returned over the last 12 months – but Father Kajo expressed concerns for those who are still displaced in Kurdish northern Iraq (around 120,000 Christians were driven from their homes by Daesh (ISIS) in summer 2014).
He said: “We have to rebuild now – if we take more time families will leave and Christianity will disappear from Iraq.”
According to Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda, up to 6,000 Christian families have emigrated over the last four years.
Father Kajo stressed: “It is urgently necessary for everyone to return to their towns and villages” as most of the region’s Christians “have spent the last three years as refugees in their own country, Iraq”.
The priest praised Faith-based organisations which have provided support – but was critical of a lack of help from the international community.
He said: “If the Christians do all go home this will only be because of help from organisations like Aid to the Church in Need – because we are getting no help from governments.”
In 2017 Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need provided more than £8.2 million for projects in Iraq – including more than £1.7 million for reconstruction of homes and churches.
Father Kajo added: “After a year of rebuilding, the only channel of aid has been through the Church.”
So far Hungary is the only government which has provided any help.
With support from bodies such as ACN and the Hungarian aid programmes, the NRC has renovated more than 22 percent of the homes they aim to restore.
The priest added that returning Christians have forgiven neighbours who collaborated with the jihadists, helping Daesh to occupy and rob houses and burn their villages.
Father Kajo said: “The first thing these families did on returning to their villages was to go and visit their Muslim neighbours, to ask them how they were.
“And they told them that they wanted to return to live in peace and recover the spirit of mutual coexistence.”
But there are also concerns that new employment opportunities are needed before life can return to normal.
Father Kajo said: “The great challenge in many cases now is for them to find work.”
The priest visited many of the villages of the Nineveh Plains on the day the Iraqi army drove out Daesh.
He said: “In Batnaya, the first place I visited was the church and I could see that everything had been destroyed.
“Lying on the ground there were Bibles and lectionaries that had recently been burnt. Before leaving the village, the militants of Daesh made a special point of ransacking the churches.”
Father Kajo stressed that Christians were keen to restart their old lives.
“We want to return, to recover our dignity and to work and live as we did before Daesh. This is our land, this is our identity.”