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CRS official sees new life in northern Iraq but says challenges remain

30 Mar 2018 – By Dale Gavlak

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — A top official with Catholic Relief Services, visiting northern Iraq, said new life is evident for those who suffered the injustices and atrocities of the Islamic State invasion of their ancestral lands but some grave challenges remain.

“I see the hope of the Resurrection, while still the experience of the Cross is the reality for many people,” William O’Keefe of Catholic Relief Services told Catholic News Service by phone from Erbil, Iraq.

“Yezidis in Sinjar have no security. Christians in the mixed areas have insufficient security. There are political problems. Sunnis in central Iraq experience tribal insecurity issues,” said O’Keefe, vice president of government relations and advocacy for CRS, the U.S. bishops’ international humanitarian aid organization based in Baltimore.

“There are also people who haven’t returned to their villages or who are not able to return, and that is a serious problem that will fill my prayers,” he told Catholic News Service on 29 March, ahead of the Easter holiday.

“And yet there are signs of life. People I spoke with six months ago see a lot of process and evidence of shop openings, cars, and all that is good,” O’Keefe said. “But there needs to be more economic activity to feel like there is momentum.”

Three million people remain internally displaced in Iraq, particularly religious minorities who were victims of the Islamic State in 2014. Many Christians were threatened with death if they did not leave; others, like the Yezidis, were kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam to save their lives.

O’Keefe said CRS is helping Christians, Yezidis, Arab Sunni Muslims and others who have been displaced to return to their villages with programs that include housing reconstruction program and assistance to vulnerable individuals to upgrade their houses to the minimum accepted standards so they can re-establish their lives.

“It’s amazing, the destruction and the meanness of ISIS occupiers who, on their way out, intentionally burned the interiors of these homes to make the return as difficult as possible,” O’Keefe said of the town of Bashiqa, located on the Ninevah Plain.

There, he visited a Christian family and a Shobak or Shiite household, to discuss the renovations taking place in their houses with CRS help.

“People are excited about the possibility of returning and having a significant part of their house: living quarters, kitchen, and common room fixed, so that can come back and rebuild,” he said.

“CRS and other groups are doing a lot of work on reconstruction and rebuilding, but there seems to be so many gaps in the political framework,” he said of the continuing political instability both in Baghdad and in the predominantly Kurdish north, which failed in its independence bid last September.

“There are people who are not yet returning for a variety of reasons,” he said. “Foremost, is that they simply do not feel safe. The state does not appear to be playing its role [in providing public security]. That’s a significant problem.”

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