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Assyrian Priest Sees the Rebirth of the Nineveh Plain Freed From the Islamic

Fr Paul Thabit Mekko, a Chaldean priest from Mosul, recently celebrated the feast of Santa Barbara in Karemlash, on the plain of Nineveh, a village previously held for three years by the Islamic State group.

Speaking to AsiaNews, the clergyman said people are waiting "for Christmas with joy, as if they had been let out of prison" after spending the last few years as "refugees in the reception centres in Erbil and Iraqi Kurdistan". They hope that "those who fled" to other countries in the region or the West "will return home" and contribute "personally to the rebirth of our land".

"We organised a solemn feast to show that, however slowly and with difficulty, we want to return to normal life and fully live this period of Advent in preparation for the birth of Jesus," Fr Paul said.

The Islamic State group, whose defeat was proclaimed last week by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, "has become history and is part of the past", but "there are still problems related to some (Shia) militias" that are a source of tensions.

One primary issue that must be tackled is "rebuilding houses" and this is true "for Karemlash as well as other towns on the plain, first of all Qaraqosh."

Recently, the community celebrated Saint Barbara (pictured) with a Eucharistic celebration and a torchlight procession, starting from the church of the Virgin Mary and ending at the sanctuary dedicated to the saint.

After the service, the community got together for a communal moment, including the first football match at the stadium of the Karemlash Sporting Club involving many young Christians and Muslims.

"Ahead of the feast, we completed the restoration work of the sanctuary," the priest said. "Many came to the festival and were amazed by the solemnity of the celebrations."

"We try to show that things are back to normal, and the football game in a new centre ready to host sporting events is part of this. Now we want to promote a sort of league for young Christians and Muslims from neighbouring villages."

"So far, 270 families have returned to Karemlash, and the Church continues to work on rebuilding houses torched or destroyed, even if it is not an easy task."

Families must "rebuild their lives" and to do so "public services are needed." People need "electricity, which is supplied only four hours a day, and heating." Life "is recovering and we are trying to get back to normal, but time and money are needed because the Islamic State destroyed everything."

"Recently, we opened a nursery school for 70 children, including non-Christians. There are still war damages that need repair -- first of all the earthen barriers built by the Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) and jihadists must be removed."

"We must level the land, then plant fruits and vegetables. We must also clear the areas mined by the Islamic State. Many farmers don't feel safe about going into their fields because of the hidden danger."

Recently, work got underway to set up a Nativity Scene, decorate the streets, the church and the main hall of the cultural centre, where Midnight Mass will be held.

"Among people there is still a sense of coldness, fear, the memory of the tragedy of recent years: the jihadist violence, the flight from their land, the exile, the exodus of many abroad looking for a new life," Fr Paul said.

"I am trying to involve young people in the preparation work. In Karemlash we have opened a hostel for Christian students at the University of Mosul, from other towns and villages. For Christmas we are thinking of organising a party for them, to make them feel less distant from their homes and families."

Despite the difficulties "the faithful want to experience the festivity, a special moment characterised by traditions that we want to respect." However, "there are still many needs and help from the outside remains fundamental", Fr Paul said.

Finally, the clergyman expressed his Best Wishes for the season: "May the birth of Christ be an opportunity to revive the Nineveh Plain and its villages, not just Karemlash, and offer those who have fled a chance to return."


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