|Date: Aug 8, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Christianity may disappear from Ninevah: archbishop|
|Antonia Williams-Annunziata| The Daily Star|
QARAQOSH/KARAMLIS, Iraq: Five years ago, Daesh (ISIS) attempted to obliterate Iraq’s Christian population. The militants seized dozens of towns, killed civilians and displaced thousands.
Today, throughout liberated areas, once lively towns lie empty, homes looted and destroyed, religious sites and relics desecrated.
Iraq’s Ninevah Plains, formerly home to one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East, is in danger of losing Christianity completely, Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda told The Daily Star.
Between January and May 2019, only 40 percent of Iraqi Christians from the area returned, according to the Ninevah Reconstruction Committee. In towns where the destruction was so severe it left areas beyond repair, residents are likely to never come back.
Qaraqosh, in the past home to 50,000 residents, was the largest Christian city in Iraq. On the night of Aug. 6, 2014, Daesh militants seized the city, forcing the entire population to flee overnight.
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the largest cathedral in the country, survived more than two years of Daesh rule. But after years of war and with the militants finally gone, the scars are still visible. The opulent marble inside is coated with a thick layer of soot. The church ceiling is still scorched and some relics are missing.
In the courtyard, where the militants destroyed countless religious texts, the burn marks are still imprinted onto the ground tiles. Old colonnades nearby, used by the militants for shooting practice, are littered with bullet holes.
The reconstruction efforts in areas like Qaraqosh and the nearby town Karamlis have progressed slowly.
Amid chronic deficiencies in basic necessities, “the only solution that would see them [Christians] return would be if they were guaranteed social stability, political and economic security,” Warda said. “It’s going to be really difficult for families to return [to their homes].”
At first, following the liberation of Ninevah in 2016, Samar Laser, 55, and his wife, Nouhad Kader, 41, longed to return home. “I returned to see the state our house was in,” Kader said from their one-bedroom flat in Irbil. “But when I arrived, our house was gone.”
“We are not even considering returning home. It’s not possible. Everything is destroyed.”
Before the liberation of Ninevah, the Catholic Church turned the top floors of a shopping mall into temporary flats. Now, it is home to 600 displaced Syrian and Iraqi Christian families, all refusing to return.
“Even though my studio apartment is very small, I feel safe here,” said Hala, who only gave her first name, citing security reasons.
“I don’t trust anyone anymore - how could I?”
Still, local religious leaders have begun the reconstruction process.
Father Thabet Habib, a Chaldean priest in Karamlis, has helped oversee rebuilding efforts across the province.
Once home to 10,000 residents, Karamlis is now in partial ruins.
Overgrown weeds loom over sidewalks and abandoned homes sit ransacked. The bell tower of St. Addai’s Monastery in town sits lopsided, while a recently discovered Daesh tunnel network between the house of worship and surrounding buildings still hold traces of the militants’ activity.
A decapitated, life-size statue of Mary that once stood at the monastery altar has been taken to Irbil to undergo reparations, along with the hundreds of other desecrated statues from Ninevah province.
At the entrance of St. Addai’s rectory, Habib has created a detailed assessment of the damage across northern Iraq. Each town has a color-coded map detailing the damage to local buildings and infrastructure.
“Each square represents a home in Karamlis,” Habib said. “The red [squares] indicate the homes that have been completely destroyed. The lighter colors indicate the houses that have been partially destroyed or burned.”
“The destruction that came with Daesh’s occupation [of Karamlis] has left parts of the town beyond repair,” he said. “We are still missing basic services needed in order to provide for our community in the future.”
Warda, the archbishop, said the Christian community had dwindled by 83 percent since 2003, when the U.S.-led invasion toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.
“Before the Christian persecution, there were 1.5 million [Iraqi Christians]. Today, we are left with less than 250,000,” he said.
Warda traveled to London in May to meet with the United Kingdom’s then-Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. In an urgent appeal, he called on the British government to provide direct aid to Christians in Iraq.
“Christianity in Iraq is one of the oldest churches, if not the oldest church in the world. It is in perilously close to extinction,” Warda said.