The idea can no longer be shrugged off as a mere pipe dream -- the hope of the thousands of Iraqi Christians who were evicted from their villages three years ago by the criminal incursions of Islamic State (ISIS) -- that they might one day be able to return to their homes on the Plains of Nineveh. With the March 27th signing ceremony in the offices of the archdiocese of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, an agreement was reached between three Christian churches in Iraq -- the Syriac Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church - formally establishing the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC) tasked with planning and supervising a programme of rebuilding the Christians houses. The Committee is composed of six members chosen from the above three churches (two representatives each) and of three external experts suggested by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which will concern itself with advocacy and fundraising.
A professional assessment completed by ACN has calculated that more than 12,000 homes need to be rebuilt -- those that were burnt, destroyed or partially damaged by ISIS -- and that the cost of this operation will be in excess of 200 million Euros. The funds gathered will be allocated to each Church in proportion to the number of damaged houses within their own faith community as calculated by the assessment.
After the signing ceremony, Monsignor Timothaeus Mosa Alshamany, Archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch and prior of the Monastery of Saint Matthew, underlined the initiative's double historical importance -- on the one hand the ecumenical spirit that made this possible and on the other the real possibility for thousands of Christians to return to their ancestral roots and to a life in dignity. "Today", he said, "we are truly a united Church -- Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean and Syriac Catholic -- united in the work of rebuilding these houses on the Nineveh Plains and in restoring hope to the hearts of the inhabitants of these villages and inviting those who have left them to return." The archbishop then went on to thank for the important role of ACN in developing this initiative: "We would like to thank ACN, which has helped us so much in the past, by providing help and food. Now this charity is playing a crucial role in the rebuilding of our houses."
The fact that this principle of unity and of speaking with "one voice" has prevailed is a source of great satisfaction for Fr Andrzej Halemba, responsible for the charity's Middle East section. ACN will closely follow the committee's work, though solely in the start-up phase. In subsequent phases ACN will limit itself to seeking the possible sources of funding, above all from among major international benefactors. "What we have done to support this initiative", said Fr Halemba, visibly gratified at the signing of the accord, "we have not done for money. We have done it to ensure that the Christians can remain in Iraq. We are working for God."
Speaking about unity between the Christian churches, Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche of Mosul also emphasised: "I would like to invite the Christians of the Nineveh Plains to return to their homes and resume living in their villages, in order to bear witness to Christianity. Today we join together to demonstrate that we are united in our wish to accelerate this operation as rapidly as possible, and that it must start as soon as possible."
The courage of the three Christian churches in taking this step responds to the courage of the Christians who have decided to stay on in Iraq. This was expressed by Chaldean Catholic Bishop Mikha Pola Maqdassi of Alqosh who stated: "Today we have given our agreement to the rebuilding of the houses in our ruined villages. This is a brave step forward which gives us great joy and encourages the Christians to remain in their villages and in their own country".
Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Nicodemus Daoud Matti Sharaf of Mosul, Kirkuk and Kurdistan addressed an appeal to all international benefactors: "We are the roots of Christianity. We must remain in our country. We must remain as witnesses to Jesus Christ in this country, in Iraq and especially in the Plains of Nineveh. This task of rebuilding all the houses in those villages where ISIS has destroyed everything is truly an enormous challenge. Thank you in advance to all those who will help us."