By Maria Lozano
NEW YORK—“Hope is coming back to the Nineveh plains!” That is the verdict of the Middle East expert of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the international Catholic charity.
Just back from a fact-finding mission to the region in northern Iraq recently liberated from the grip of ISIS, Father Andrzej Halemba said that “despite the many urgent questions that need clarification, people are willing to return to their villages.” The biggest challenges include the illegal property appropriations of abandoned homes, an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in the destruction of Christian houses, and—for those Christian families who contemplate going home—the ongoing fears of assaults Islamic fundamentalists opposed to the return of Christians to their ancient homeland.
Father Halemba noted a major change in the attitude of the Christian IDPs—who have been cared for by the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil since their expulsion from the Nineveh plains in the summer of 2014. Last November—during a heightened stage of the battle for Mosul—an ACN survey showed just 1 percent of IDS wished to return. A current estimate holds that, presently, 50 percent of IDPs are willing to return. Meanwhile, ACN is called upon to continue caring for the IDPs pending their repatriation. For the next six months at least, 12,000 families will continue to rely on monthly food baskets, while 5,000 families need help paying their rent.
Taking the long view of the situation on the Nineveh plains, Father Halemba calls on the international community to launch “a new Marshall Plan,” modeled on the historic US initiative of investment and development aid that helped Western Europe regain economic stability after World War II.
He said that the first order of business is a careful assessment of the damages done to homes and infrastructure—and the costs involved in the rebuilding process—in some 10 villages, with properties belonging to Syrian Catholics, Syrian Orthodox as well as Chaldean faithful.
The next step planned is a follow-up to the November 2016 survey of the at least 1,200 families of IDPs in Erbil, probing whether they wish to return to their former homes. Based on the assessment of destruction on the Nineveh plain and the survey of the intent to return, ACN will establish a special committee that will supervise a comprehensive Marshall Plan for the Nineveh plains.
This grand initiative will be executed by ACN in partnership with other charities. Besides reconstruction efforts, other important issues await addressing. Father Halemba said: “the legal issues need to be considered; this includes, for example, the right to full citizenship of Iraqi Christians and the involvement of the Iraqi government in the reconstruction process.
“The government should be responsible for creating structures and job projects, while making sure there is security for Christians in their villages.” He also said the international community must get involved and that it is “very important to properly collate the documentation of the destruction and the violent acts persecution so that, in some way, a sense of justice and peace can return and help ensure this never happens again.”
At first no families were expected to return before June, but a few families have decided to make the move already this winter. Father Halemba said: “we have to see if we can refocus part of our help for the communities in Erbil to a ‘start-up support’ plan for the Nineveh plains.
“These people also rely on the Church—they look to the Church as a sign of security and stability and so ACN has to help religious sisters and priests to go back with their flocks. ACN has to support these people in this decisive and historical moment for Christians in Iraq.”