By Mónica Zorita
This year, Christian refugees in the northern part of Iraq are twice as excited to celebrate the birth of Christ. This is because the vast majority of the villages on the Nineveh plains, which have been under occupation by the “Islamic State” (IS) since the summer of 2014, have now been liberated. In mid-2014 120,000 people fled the advancing jihadist threat, leaving their homes in great haste. “When we received the news that IS was retreating, a spontaneous celebration broke out in the refugee camps. The people went out into the streets to dance and sing, as though they did not have any other problems in their lives,” Father Luis Montes, episcopal vicar of the Latin bishop for Kurdistan, reported. He has been living in Iraq since 2010.
In an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the Argentine priest from the Institute of the Incarnate Word explained that despite this initial joy, very difficult steps must first be taken before the refugees can return to their homes. “Approximately 60% of the homes on the Nineveh plains were burned down. The terrorists not only seized all of their belongings, they riddled the region with land mines …. they even put bombs in with children’s toys so that they would explode when the people returned. It is true that some people were able to return to their houses. However, they were only able to determine that they still exist because it is impossible to live there,” said Father Montes. “The mines first need to be cleared out of the entire region. Only then can the villages be restored from the ground up. Everything still needs to be done, the people have nothing left.”
(Father Luis Montes in Erbil ministering to the Christians forced from their homelands by IS © Aid to the Church in Need)
Meanwhile, the refugees continue to live in Erbil, the capital city of semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Most of the country’s Christians are living there at the moment. “They have not lost the hope of being able to return to their homes. They envision themselves living back in their houses, receiving friends and relatives there. Because hospitality is very important to them. Despite everything, Iraqis have lost neither their smiles nor their hope.” Father Luis Montes described them as a model of willpower. They held out all through these horrible years “not only in peace, but also with joy”. “It is easy being a pastor here because they really live what they say. To talk about forgiveness with them is easy because they forgive without bearing a grudge. They are what gives us strength.”
Christmas with blankets and chocolate
The Christmas holiday is celebrated very intensely in the northern part of Iraq. The houses and streets are decorated with Christmas trees and lights. A very special atmosphere pervades. During Advent, believers prepared themselves for the arrival of the Lord by going to confession. A highlight of the celebrations were the various Masses held during these days. The Argentine priest described how chocolate is passed out in the refugee camps after Holy Mass as a sign of joy and brotherhood. If an aid organisation has donated gifts, they are also distributed. “I find it quite impressive to look into the faces of the children when they see the presents. Not only because of the things in and of themselves, but because people who live very far away were thinking of them.”
At this time of year the average temperature is minus three degrees Celsius. A great contrast to the sweltering 50 degrees celcius that the country experiences in the summer. The solution is “blankets and more blankets”, because the walls of the prefabricated barracks in the refugee camps are very thin. “Because they had to be built very quickly to accommodate the large masses of people, many of these barracks have construction defects. These are gradually being repaired. Sometimes the families live in flats that they share with other families and that have been rented by the diocese of Erbil.”
“They know that Christians from other countries have kept them alive”
Since 2011, Aid to the Church in Need has been providing aid by supporting various projects throughout the country, such as the building of schools, renting flats for refugee families, Mass offerings for priests, distributing Christmas presents or paying the maintenance costs for various Christian refugee camps. Father Luis Montes expressed how deeply he appreciates the work of the charity. He affirmed that the refugees “know that Christians from other countries have kept them alive. They always pray for their benefactors.” Nevertheless, the priest from the Institute of the Incarnate Word asked that the international community not forget Iraq once the Islamic State has been defeated. “This country needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. The people have lost everything.”
(The Christians exiled in Erbil overflow from the makeshift Church for the Christmas Masses © Aid to the Church in Need)
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 172 languages and 50 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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