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Hard Choices

Iraq’s Christians face homes in ruin — and a future in doubt

by Raed Rafei

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In a bright classroom, a dozen spirited teenagers, in groups of two or three, pore over Arabic copies of the Bible. The unadorned, freshly painted walls hint that the room has not seen use for a while.

“Who knows what Urshalim means?” asks a sister, using the name for Jerusalem preferred by Arabic-speaking Christians, as she circles around her students reading from the Acts of the Apostles. A short moment of silence follows, interrupted by an eager young voice: “The land of peace!”

It might seem like a normal scorching-hot day at Immaculate Conception School in Qaraqosh, once a thriving Christian city in northern Iraq. But the hustle and bustle of cheerful children playing in the courtyard of this summer catechetical program strongly contrasts with the ghostly silence outside.

The scenes around town speak volumes. Large piles of rubble lie interwoven with twisted iron along rough roads. Long, empty streets showcase buildings collapsed or scorched, and church towers brought to ruin.

In October 2016, after more than two years of occupation by ISIS, Qaraqosh and other predominantly Christian towns in the Nineveh Plain of northern Iraq were liberated by a large military campaign led by the Iraqi military, Kurdish Peshmerga and Shiite militias, with support from international forces.

Over the ensuing months, however, displaced Iraqi Christians have been hesitant to return home, citing uncertainty about reconstruction, political instability, security concerns and general anxieties over their forced exodus from their homeland.

But in this town that has stood for thousands of years — it was once called Baghdeda in ancient Syriac — and which only three years ago boasted large entertainment centers, wedding halls and numerous shopping areas, signs of life are slowly and gradually emerging.

“It’s like a flower becoming bigger and bigger every day,” says the Rev. Georges Jahola of the Syriac Catholic Church, who has been heading the church’s efforts for the reconstruction of Qaraqosh in the absence of an effective governmental plan.

“In the beginning people were afraid to return,” he says optimistically, “but the situation is changing. One family brings another.”

Iraq’s largest Christian city, Qaraqosh served as a commercial hub for the entire region of the Nineveh Plain. Since the landmines were cleared and the area was declared safe in April, some 500 families have returned — a fraction of the pre-war population of 50,000.

Yet the simple fact that they are here tells a story of resilience, determination and faith.

In a once-bustling commercial neighborhood known simply as Al Souk (Arabic for “market”), locals have begun the mammoth task of clearing away rubble. With a shovel in hand and a black hat, Bahnam Matti, 72, removes detritus from what had been a clothes shop, now desolate with large holes in the ceiling. Every now and then, he pauses to wipe the sweat off his face with a pink towel placed on his shoulder.

Across the street, a woman in a bright red and blue dress sprays water from a hose on the entrance of her scorched restaurant. Others paint walls or cut wood panels, undaunted by the scale of destruction - scores of collapsed rooftops, smashed storefronts and hills of accumulated debris.

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