People leave a Catholic church after a service in a displaced-persons camp in Ankawa, Iraq, April 2016. CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

Aid to Church in Need helps Iraqi Christians return home

By 
  • December 18, 2017

MONTREAL – Now that the military in Iraq has declared ISIS defeated, 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.”

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 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 and heavily damaged villages. Since then, ACN teams report people are returning to their 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 in Erbil with food and rent, he said. ACN also helped create the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee along with three major churches in the area: the Syrian Catholic, the Chaldean Catholic and the Syrian Orthodox.

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.”

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.

“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.

Ozores calls the Christians he has met in the Middle East “the most amazing people we’re allowed to meet.”

“It’s really the Catholic Church at the frontier,” said Ozores, who described the Christians there as “heroic and very inspiring to any Catholic, but also most in need of support.”

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,” Ozores said.

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