LEICESTER, United Kingdom -- Bishop Paul McAleenan said he was "shocked" by what he saw during a recent trip to northern Iraq to visit with Christians returning to their homes four years after being driven out by the Islamic State.
The Westminster auxiliary is the Lead Bishop for Migrants and Asylum Seekers at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. During his visit to Iraq's Nineveh Plains - the heartland of the country's Christian population - he witnessed first-hand the reconstruction efforts in the predominantly Christian towns that were overrun by the Islamic State forces and spoke to many returning Christians who were displaced by the violence.
"My experience was a mixture of emotions, actually. It was one of both shock and inspiration. Shock because of the recognizable and visible devastation which even though you are aware of because of media reports, you don't actually appreciate. The inspiration was because, in response to the devastation and to the need of the people and the reconstruction effort the Church is in the vanguard," McAleenan told Crux.
He saw projects sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus [a principal partner of Crux] to help the returning population to rebuild their lives.
"The Church is leading the reconstruction and ostensibly because there is no obvious civic structure, so someone has to lead and the Church has stepped into the opening, and it is leading the redevelopment and the reconstruction and is making plans for the future, not only in terms of dwelling homes but also in needs like universities and hospitals," he said.
Despite the devastation brought by the Islamic State onslaught, and the threats of future persecution, McAleenan told Crux the Christians of Iraq don't want to leave.
"It's their country. They have no desire to leave at all. They want to not only stay in the country, they want to play their part in society," the bishop said.
Below are excerpts of Crux's conversation the bishop.
Crux: You visited the Christian areas being reconstructed after ISIS was driven out of the Nineveh plains. Can you describe the experience?
McAleenan: My experience was a mixture of emotions, actually. It was one of both shock and inspiration. Shock because of the recognizable and visible devastation which even though you are aware of because of media reports, you don't actually appreciate. The inspiration was because, in response to the devastation and to the need of the people and the reconstruction effort the Church is in the vanguard.
The Church is leading the reconstruction and ostensibly because there is no obvious civic structure, so someone has to lead, and the Church has stepped into the opening, and it is leading the redevelopment and the reconstruction and is making plans for the future, not only in terms of dwelling homes but also in needs like universities and hospitals.
What are the spirits of the Iraqi Christians moving back to their homes? Are they hopeful? Fearful?
They are grateful for returning. They are positive that their homes are being rebuilt again. At the same time, there is a little bit of residual fear that the same may happen again. So, it isn't a complete closure; it is a desire to carry on, to reconstruct their whole lives as much as they can - but at the same time, there is a little bit of fear: Will this be repeated. Because speaking to a number of them, this has happened periodically in their history, going back centuries, so there is no guarantee another group may not arise, that at some stage in the future that they will also be persecuted.
But there is hope, insofar as they see things happening. Programs are being supplied to them to adjust to their experiences and help them to deal with what has happened in the past, there is physical reconstruction of their homes, and other infrastructure is being put into place as well. So, as for the attitude of the people: There is hope, and as we know if you don't have hope you can't continue. There is hope, but we can't deny there is a little fear as well.
Tens of thousands of refugees from the area are still in Iraqi Kurdistan - even more have fled the country. Do you think most of them will return to the Nineveh plains?
For those who are still in the country, in the northern part of Iraq and Kurdistan, there is a hope; and the fact that they are still in the country within the confines of the border means that they most likely will - when their house is built again - they will return. However, it is accepted that many people have left the country - for Europe, for Germany, the U.S., and Canada - and there is no guarantee they will return. So that was something that was on the mind of [Erbil Archbishop Bashar Warda] that he was very hopeful that those were still within the landmass of Iraq and Kurdistan would come back, but those who decided to go overseas, it was possible they won't come back.
We often hear Church leaders in the West say we must make sure to preserve the Christian presence in Iraq - and for that matter all over the Middle East. Is this the same attitude of the Christians who are there, and actually facing the persecution? Do they really want to stay in these areas?
Absolutely. Undoubtedly. It's their country. They have no desire to leave at all. They want to not only to stay in the country, they want to play their part in society. There is no desire in the Christians that are remaining there to evacuate and to seek another location to live. It is their country, they insist. They want to be part of their country. They want to be part of their society and contribute to it, and there is no indication at all that they are seeking any means, legal or underhanded, to leave.
What can we in the West do to help, both as a Church, and through our governments?
That is a very good question. There are some things that we can do. Obviously, financial assistance is required, and that is being supplied by Aid to the Church in Need from this country, and I understand from America, the Knights of Columbus have been very supportive in providing needed funds. Also, what is needed is prayer, of course, but what also can be done is to exert some pressure on our own governments to in turn exert influence on the Baghdad government to establish, for example, a federal police force or a federal army. The reason that's important: As one travels around northern Iraq, Kurdistan, and as one crosses over into Iraqi-controlled areas, one encounters different militias because the Baghdad government has asked different militias to take responsibility for law and order in different places, and obviously militias will be following their own style of law and order.
So, there is a two-fold reason for asking for a federal police force. First of all, there will be one rule of law, applicable by all officers to all the people. Secondly, it would be one of the ideal ways of creating work. The archbishop also told me that what is needed in imploring people to stay ... is jobs. And if there was employment in the security forces in the country, that would be work.