“We have returned, we have returned.” The voice of father Paolo Mekko, Chaldean priest of Karamles, a Christian village in the Nineveh Plains, no longer speaks with a meek voice, as when he described the forced flight of Christians – no less than 100 thousand – from Mosul and from their villages, oppressed by the black flags of the Islamic State. It was the summer of 2014. Caliph Al Baghdadi was determined to wipe out the Christian presence but he was defeated, and Christians are returning to their homes that are slowly being restructured and rebuilt. A message of victory that gains further significance this Christmas, “the first true Christmas in our villages, finally safe and liberated”, the priest said. They were still under their enemies’ yoke in December 2016, immediately after the liberation that had occurred only two months earlier. In fact at the time a high number of Jihadi fighters were still engaged in combats, hiding inside destroyed houses. But today, the roar of the bombs and the sound of gunfire are but a memory that everyone “here in the Nineveh Plains” want to leave behind. “We want to look ahead.” Houses and churches are back to life in this strip of land, cradle of Iraqi Christianity: past December 8, St. George’s church in Tellskuf, seriously damaged and profaned by ISIS, was reconsecrated and rebuilt thanks to a 100-thousand Euro grant allocated by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
“Ready to celebrate.” But devastation is of huge proportions: 13 thousand damaged houses, 1234 of which were destroyed, 3557 set ablaze and 8297 damaged.
Christians are determined, many of them plan to celebrate Christmas in their villages.
Over 400 families have returned to Qaraqosh, 800 in Bartella, over 900 in Tellskuf. A total number of 6.330 Christians so far have made a safe return to their homes. And the numbers are expected to grow. “Here in Karamles the church is still under reconstruction – said Father Mekko – we have a smaller one but it’s not big enough for all the parishioners who returned, more than 300 families, and thus we will celebrate in a large hall that we are preparing with decorations, flowers and a large nativity scene, perhaps the largest in the Plains. The manger will be set on the altar where we will place the child Jesus on Christmas Eve.” The streets that are starting to get busy again shine with the first Christmas lights. “Christmas trees and symbols are visible also in Mosul, where some 70 families have returned so far”, said the priest from the city that borders on the Western shore of the Tigris River. In Kirkuk, by decision of local Institutions, the 25th of December will be a festivity, a concrete way to express the solidarity of all society towards Christians during Christmas.
A spark of hope. The Chaldean Patriarch of Mosul, Mar Louis Raphael I Sako, will open Christmas celebrations with a Mass at 10 a.m., in Saint Paul’s church, located near the city’s university.
“The church – pointed out Father Paolo – will be decorated by committed Christian and Muslim youths who want it to serve as a message of reconciliation and peace. Also the bishops of Mosul, Syriac-Orthodox Bishop Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, and Syriac Catholic Bishop Petrous Moshe will join the Chaldean Patriarch. They will jointly pay homage to the tomb of the Chaldean bishop Msgr. Paulos Faraj P. Raho”,
kidnapped on February 28 2008 and found dead on March 13 in Mosul. After the homily in Mosul, the priest added, “the first Vespers will be held in the villages on Christmas Eve, after which we will light the first ‘shepherds bonfire’, until the celebration of Midnight Mass. The liturgies will continue during Christmas day. Today, the Nineveh Plains are safe, and it’s possible to celebrate at night, as by tradition – the parish priest of Karamles said with no hesitation-. Our youths are also preparing recreational moments for children, the exchange of gifts, celebrations with music and dance. On New Year’s Eve groups of young people all dressed up will visit the Christian and Muslim families in the village to distribute presents on behalf of Santa Claus.
All of this will serve to recreate that feeling of hope and joy that seemed to have vanished with ISIS’ heinous violence.” Even those who are still living in the refugee camps of Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, will celebrate Christmas, many will go to Mass in the parish churches of the Christian district of Ankawa. However, Father Mekko pointed out, “we look forward to the upcoming Christmas to see the families return, even if it were only for Christmas celebrations. It could be a spark initiating their definitive return.” “May it be a spark of hope for Christians in Nineveh” the priest said. “None of us believed they would return to their homes. But it’s happening, and it’s a Christmas miracle. But it’s not enough.
We will pray for peace and forgiveness also for our enemies and for those who sowed death, for those who forced us to leave our homeland, we will ask God to bestow the gift of reconciliation upon our Country.
Our enemies’ peace will also be our peace.”