Nineveh Plains (Iraq)

An Olive Tree Ceremony” launches reconstruction efforts in Iraq

On Monday morning, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need consecrated three building sites in the villages of Bartella, Karemlash and Baghdeda (Qaraqosh) for the reconstruction of the first 105 houses belonging to internally displaced Christian families. The owners of the houses were each given a small olive tree to plant in their gardens, to grow in their gardens as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.

Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan), May 9, 2017—As fragile as a young olive tree and as small as the mustard seed from the parable from the Gospels—here begins the reconstruction of the first 105 houses of Christian families in the villages of Bartella, Karemlash and Baghdeda (Qaraqosh) on the Nineveh Plains. Work on the first building site in Baghdeda will already be underway as of this Thursday (May 11).

The source of this newfound hope is the churches located in the villages—despite having been plundered and destroyed by the self-appointed Islamic State (IS). The attacks carried out by IS on the Nineveh Plains in August of 2014, forced close to 130,000 Christians to leave their homes and take refuge in Kurdistan. Y

Monday morning, Philipp Ozores, General Secretary of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), presented olive trees to 35 Syrian Orthodox families in the small church of Mor Shmuni, in the community of Bartella. The rebuilding of these homes, scheduled to take place over the next few days, was arranged by the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC) made up of representatives of the Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic and Chaldean churches as well as three consultants appointed by Aid to the Church in Need. They have had the task of planning the reconstruction of almost 13,000 Christian houses destroyed by IS on the Nineveh Plains.

In Bartella, 1,451 houses belonging to Syrian Orthodox families have to be rebuilt. Seventy-five of which were destroyed in their totality, 278 burned down and 1,098 partially damaged. Restoring water and electricity services was possible on a few days ago.

Returning: More difficult than fleeing

In his sermon during the Olive Tree Ceremony, Archbishop Timothaeus Mosa Alshamany of the Syriac Orthodox church of Antioch, who is also prior of the Monastery of St. Matthew, made no secret of the difficulties of this undertaking. “A few months ago, we were waiting for the liberation of our cities. Today, we are waiting for reconstruction. Returning to our cities is even more difficult than fleeing from them.”

Following the ceremony in Bartella, the little “convoy of hope” continued on to Karemlash. There, Philipp Ozores, Father Andrzej Halemba, head of the Middle East section of Aid to the Church in Need and interim chair of the NRC, as well as Father Salar Kajo, who is responsible for the rebuilding efforts in the Chaldean villages of Tel Skuf, Bakofa, Badnaya, Tel Keppe and Karemlash, presented olive trees to 20 additional families. The ceremony took place in the Chaldean church of Mar Addaii, which was also partially burned down by IS.


The suffering of leaving

After the ceremony, 76-year-old Habib Yuossif Mansuor recalled the suffering of having to leave his own village. “We looked the pain in the eye. We fled after midnight, leaving our houses and all of our possessions. I had a two-storey house here in Karemlash that was bombed to the ground. We all speak the same language, and so we would like to return to our cities on the Nineveh Plains as brothers, as though we have only one heart. We want to live and work together, as though we are just one body. We thank the Lord and Aid to the Church in Need.” In Karemlash, 754 houses need repairs. Of these, 89 are completely destroyed, 241 were burned down, and 424 partially damaged. The water supply has been up and running again since Monday: a small, but important sign of hope.

The last of the olive tree ceremonies took place in Baghdeda. Here, 6,327 houses belonging to Syrian Catholic Christians need repairs. Of these, 108 houses are completely destroyed, in addition to the 400 houses belonging to Syrian Orthodox Christians (7 houses were completely destroyed). However, there is no lack of enthusiasm or skills: 40 engineers have “signed on” to rebuild the city and about 2,000 workers are ready to begin work. Electricity is slowly coming on across the entire city.


Unity: The only means of achieving a shared goal

Althajra Cathedral, which is consecrated to the Immaculate Conception, was set on fire by IS to confuse American military aircraft with its smoke. There, Philipp Ozores and the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Kirkuk and Kurdistan Yohanna Petros Mouche presented olive trees to 50 families. The archbishop had to wait for the applause to end several times before he could continue with his sermon pointing out that unity was the only means of achieving their shared goal. “We do not want to pay attention to the voices of those who would discourage us because they want to prevent the reconstruction. We stand by our decision to return, despite all the challenges that await us. Christ is our tower of strength that gives us hope. We must persevere, because this is our soil and our heritage. I am very happy that we have an organization like Aid to the Church in Need at our side.”

Azhaar Naissan Saqat also thanked Aid to the Church in Need. Originally from Baghdeda, the 46-year-old assistant physician lived in Erbil for three years as an internally displaced person, where he manages two outpatient clinics for the displaced. “We had almost lost all hope, but after such a long wait, we were able to return to our city thanks to the support of Aid to the Church in Need and other organizations that helped us to rebuild our houses—first and foremost Aid to the Church in Need. This foundation made it possible for us to hope once more that we would be able to return to our homes and our churches and lead normal lives again.”

ACN’s General Secretary Philipp Ozores and Father Halemba pictured here, giving the gift of an Olive Tree


Philipp Ozores, General Secretary of Aid to the Church in Need, said, “Today, we would like to hold on to this small sign that we are once more at the point of departure—just as in the parable of the mustard seed from the Gospels. But, with God’s help and that of our benefactors, we hope that the Nineveh Plains will be able to welcome back the Christians who were forced to flee. We hope that this region may soon become a place of life and peace for all once more.”

Also to be held next weekend, the Olive Tree Ceremony will travel to Tel Skuf, a Chaldean village with 1,268 houses in need of rebuilding, but where the majority (1,123) have sustained only slight damages, meaning that the hope for a speedy resettlement of the village is more foreseeable. In fact, 500 Christian families have already returned to Tel Skuf.

By Daniele Piccini, Aid to the Church in Need International,

Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, Aid to the Church in Need Canada


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