MONTREAL (CCN) — Now that ISIS has been defeated in Iraq, about 30,000 Christians have returned to their villages in the Nineveh Plains with help from Aid to the Church in Need.
“The Iraq project is crucial,” said Philipp Ozores, secretary general of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), in an interview Dec. 7 at the Holy See charity’s Montreal office. “We could be facing the demise of Christians in the Middle East”
“Thank God, we are hopeful we and many others supporting us can succeed,” he said.
While tensions remain between the Kurdish Regional Government and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, most of the villages captured by ISIS are empty and people are now returning.
About 100,000 Christians fled to Erbil and the surrounding area in the Kurdish region after ISIS invaded Mosul and the Nineveh Plains in 2014.
“People are now returning to a more and more normal life,” Ozores said.
It is “hopeful” people are returning “in spite of little aid in light of the total need,” he said.
“This is a sign people are willing to stay and rebuild,” Ozores said.
Ozores visited Iraq last April, and saw empty villages and extensive damage. Since then, ACN teams have visited and report people are returning to their homes or communities and shops are opening, he said.
“What is needed is help for them to rebuild,” he said.
Over the last few years, ACN has helped sustain the internally displaced people (IDP) in Erbil with food and rent, he said. Since the liberation of their former villages, ACN helped create a local committee called the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee along with three major churches in the area: the Syrian Catholic, the Chaldean Catholic and the Syrian Orthodox.
The committee’s first step was to assess the damage, he said. They have developed statistics on about 13,000 houses. “Only 1,233 were totally destroyed,” Ozores said, noting 8,217 were partially damaged and “could be reconstructed with about $2-5,000 USD per house.”
“Two thirds of the houses are only partially damaged,” he said. This means a total effort of rebuilding would cost about $250 million USD.
Ozores estimates that with $20 to $30 USD “focused on the partially damaged houses, most of them could be made liveable.”
ACN has been involved through the churches in Iraq since the beginning, but now more NGOs are involved in a co-ordinated effort, he said. “Now we’re advocating for support from the international community, because we’re speaking here of human rights.
Two human rights are engaged: religious freedom and the right to return to their homes, he said.
ACN has provided significant support to Iraqi Christians, raising some 40 million Euros since 2014, Ozores said. It is joined by other organizations such as the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.
“Now what we need is the intervention of governments,” Ozores said. Meanwhile, ACN will continue its worldwide campaign “to support the Christians in the Nineveh Plains while also seeking government help.”
“When we started in 2014, there was no hope at all,” he said. ISIS had made it impossible for Christians and other religious minorities in the area to remain. “People were stranded. They are now returning to their homes. It’s a miracle this has happened.”
“The dimes of the widows of the world have contributed to keeping alive the Christian faith and sparking the return of Christians,” he said.
Through the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee’s working in “an efficient way,” ACN is able to channel funds where they’ll do the most good, he said.
Ozores calls the Christians he has met in the Middle East as “the most amazing people we’re allowed to meet.”
“It’s really the Catholic Church at the frontier,” said Ozores, who described the Christians of the Middle East as “heroic and very inspiring to any Catholic but also most in need of support.”
“We could be facing the demise of Christians in the Middle East,” he said. “Thank God, we are hopeful, we and many others supporting us, can succeed.”
ACN hopes to expand efforts in Syria next year, but ISIS and like groups are still operating there and “unfortunately the Syrian civil war goes on on a lesser level,” he said. “ISIS is nearing defeat in Syria but that doesn’t guarantee the fighting will end. There are other parties involved.”