The day after Labor Day marks the return to school of millions of American kids. This year, God be praised, it will also mark the return to school of Iraqi Christian children, who with their families are returning to the Nineveh plains to reclaim their homes and lives that were so brutally uprooted by terrorism and war. Aid to the Church in Need USA, the American division of the international papal agency, has been instrumental in helping to make this possible. (Disclosure: I serve on the board of directors of ACNUSA. Our TCT colleague and contributor George J. Marlin is chairman of the board.)
In an earlier column, I wrote about a speech Mr. Marlin gave in which he called for a new Marshall Plan for the Middle East. I’m happy to report that the first steps in implementing such a plan are underway in Iraq.
We’re truly thrilled that this month ACN hopes to repatriate 15,000 people in Qaraqosh, Iraq – that’s 3,000 families.
This plat, with damaged homes over-lined in yellow, shows how extensive the destruction was:
Overall in the Nineveh Plain, more than 1200 homes were totally destroyed by ISIS, more than 3000 were damaged due to fire, and another 8000-plus were damaged and now need repairs of some kind. Of churches, the numbers are, respectively, 34, 132, and 197. It’s what you might call an unnatural disaster.
But as I also wrote earlier, the repatriation of Christians in the Church’s original homeland depends upon peace. And although ISIS has been pushed out of Nineveh, it remains to be seen if the safety and security of Iraqis – in Nineveh and elsewhere – can be guaranteed.
Here’s the story:
When the world’s recent refugee problem first became news, it was usually in terms of fighting between ISIS and various domestic armies and militias – mostly in Iraq and Syria. Most of us have seen photographs of long lines of internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing either from the fighting or from the ultimatums ISIS made to Christians: convert to Islam, leave your homelands, or die. Very few Christians chose to convert and some were put to the sword. But most – along with many, many Muslims – simply fled: either to foreign countries or to refugee camps.
The headlines have often been about the influx of Muslims into Europe, and too often the stories have dealt with the infiltration of ISIS and other terrorist operatives who, beginning on September 11, 2001, have murdered (at minimum) 20,000 human beings worldwide with many thousands more injured.
But those are the murders in terrorist attacks. In the Islamist-driven war in Syria, nearly 400,000 have died. Nineteen thousand civilians have died in Iraq since 2014 (north of 60,000 armed combatants have been killed), but an even more devastating figure is the total number of Middle Eastern IDPs: 4,525,968.
Aid to the Church in Need U.S.A. has been involved in helping these refugees from the very start of the crisis, and we’ve always had two goals in mind.
We have sought to provide immediate humanitarian aid to those driven from their homes: water, food, shelter, clothing, and medicine – the essentials – but also education for children, helping to ensure than a generation of kids would not be lost.
And we have also always believed that one day – as happened at the end of World War II – these displaced persons would return to reclaim their homes, jobs, and ancient patrimony. Recent events have begun to prove that we were right – and we have begun to prepare for it.
In the Knights of Columbus magazine, Columbia, John L. Allen Jr. recently noted that since 2011, Aid to the Church in Need “has spent $35.5 million helping Christian refugees in Iraq and Syria, especially those taking shelter in Erbil [in northern Iraq] and elsewhere in Kurdistan. The U.S. branch of ACN has been a major contributor to the effort.”
And Mr. Allen has a marvelous term for the work we’re now beginning: Dunkirk in reverse.
Having spent the last half-dozen years helping people fleeing from their homes, ACN is now involved with other groups, principally the KofC, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and Catholic Relief Services, in helping the refugees return. This collective effort has been dubbed the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC).
The goal of NRC is simply stated: “To enable Iraqi Christians who wish to return home to villages in the Nineveh Plains, where they have lived for centuries, and to do so in dignity, safety, as well as security.”
Of course, these people (mostly Catholic and Orthodox) bring their dignity with them and have never sacrificed it despite the suffering and danger they have faced. An aid to that dignity will be the urgent rebuilding and renovation of their homes, schools, and economic lives.
Safety and security, of course, are ongoing concerns and something ACN/NRC cannot provide. That will require cooperation among local and national Iraqi officials – and interested third parties. To the extent that there is peace in the area, it is up to those governments and third parties (other nations that have interests in Iraq and that are possessed of moral consciences) to devise ways to protect the newly returned citizens: Catholic, Orthodox, Yazidi, and Muslim.
Muslims, who formerly lived in relative amity with their Christian neighbors, cannot help but be grateful for the efforts of Christians to rebuild Nineveh, because they too will be the beneficiaries of renewed economic activity and, above all, peace.
What NRC will establish in Nineveh is a beachhead of sorts – a proving ground for the reestablishment of multi-religious communities where amity among different faiths previously did exist.
If it can succeed there, it may succeed elsewhere. Anyway, it may be now or never.