An “Olive Tree Ceremony” in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains will mark the beginning of the rebuilding of homes belonging to Christian families who fled when extremist group Daesh (ISIS) seized their villages.
The ceremony set to be held on Monday (8th May) in the villages of Bartella, Karamlesh and Qaraqosh will inaugurate rebuilding work on the first 100 houses destroyed by Daesh.
A survey by Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, calculated that around 12,000 homes need to be rebuilt.
At the ceremony, olive trees will be given to the house owners to plant near their homes.
And a message will be given to them to put back roots in the villages they were born in and bring fruits of peace and reconciliation.
Aid to the Church in Need’s Father Andrzej Halemba, who is an acting chairman of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC), described the ceremony as a “historic and unrepeatable occasion for the future of Christianity in Iraq”.
He said: “By starting work on these first three reconstruction sites, we are hoping to send a clear signal to the thousands of Christian families who were driven from their homes on the Plains of Nineveh and who are now living in makeshift conditions in Erbil and other towns of Iraqi Kurdistan”.
He added: “This is a decisive historical moment. If we now miss the opportunity to help the Christians return to their homes on the Plains of Nineveh, these families might well decide to leave Iraq forever. That would be an enormous tragedy.
“The presence of the Christians in this region is of vital importance, and not only historically, but also politically and culturally.
“The Christians represent a bridge of peace between the various Muslim groups that are fighting each other – they make a crucial contribution to the educational system and are respected by all moderate Muslims.”
Members of the NRC – which includes representatives of the three main Christian Churches in the region, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church and the Chaldean Church – will be present at the “Olive Tree Ceremony”.
Aid to the Church in Need staff will also be in attendance, including the charity’s secretary general Philipp Ozores.
A survey of displaced Christian families by Aid to the Church in Need in March revealed that 41 percent are committed to returning to their own homes in the Nineveh Plains – which they were forced to abandon during the Daesh (ISIS) invasion in 2014.
Additionally 46 percent of the families are considering returning. This is a drastic change from the charity’s November 2016 survey in which only 3.3 percent of families indicated they would seriously consider returning to their villages.
Father Halemba said: “These figures are a snapshot of the historical dilemma facing Christianity in Iraq at the present time.”
The cost of the rebuilding programme is estimated to be more than US$250 million (£158 million). Aid to the Church in Need has already made 450,000 Euros (£381,000) available.
Father Halemba concluded with an appeal for prayer: “To all our Christian brothers and sisters in the West we ask not only their financial support but also that they support with their prayers the courage of the thousands of Iraqi Christians who have made the decision to return to their villages and stay on in Iraq.”
Since late summer 2014, Aid to the Church in Need has been providing emergency aid including food for around 12,000 displaced families in Erbil who were forced to flee from Mosul and the other towns and villages in the Nineveh Plains.