Education and dialogue hold key to Christians staying in Iraq

“THANKS TO THE HELP from Western countries, there are still Christians in Iraq,” Father Jens Petzold told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Father Petzold is originally from Berlin, but since 2012, he has been in charge of the Chaldean Catholic monastery “Deir Maryam El-Adhra” (Monastery of the Virgin Mary) in Sulaymaniah, which is located in the Kurdish region of Iraq, known as Kurdistan.

“Iraq appears to be returning to a certain degree of normality. However, much still needs to be done to ensure that Christians can return to their villages on the Nineveh Plains. It will still take some time before the last house in these destroyed villages will have been rebuilt,” the 58-year-old priest said. Even then it remains to be seen if the people, who had been able to escape ISIS in August 2014 only at the very last moment, will actually remain in this still unstable region.

Father Petzold

Since his ordination to the priesthood in 2012, Father Jens Petzold has held the name Abuna Yohanna. He is a member of the ecumenical community al-Khalil, which is committed to the promotion of a dialogue between Islam and Christianity as its mission.

Of the 250 people who were taken in by the monastery Deir Maryam El-Adhra during the ISIS invasion of the Nineveh Plains, a quarter have already emigrated, the priest said. Some of those remaining have settled in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil, the capital city of Kurdistan. Others have returned to their villages.

As Father Petzold explained, in addition to having lost their faith in the future, in the authorities and in a number of their Muslim neighbors—who had initially welcomed ISIS with open arms— Christians are now facing a very precarious economic situation. Plus, the priest added, corruption is pervasive.

“Young people do not want to be locked in a cage in which they would not be free to move. There would be little sense in building up a region of only Christians, a ghetto amidst Muslim villages. The only solution is dialogue and reconciliation,” Father Petzold stressed. He pointed out that one should not forget that many Muslims also suffered suppression by ISIS. “Half of the Muslim population fled Mosul,” he said, when ISIS captured the city in northern Iraq in June 2014.

Now that emergency aid is no longer needed, Father Petzold reported that his monastic community was planning to dedicate itself once more to its original mission: the promotion of Christian-Islamic dialogue featuring both a spiritual and intellectual exchange. “We do not claim to be able to change the reality of the Middle East, but we are taking initial steps within the realms of what is possible for our monastery. We are focusing on young adults need education and job training. We want to expand their horizons,” he said.

The priest and his fellow monks are dealing with the fact that there are language barriers between various ethnic groups, including between Kurds and Arabs. The monks have responded to this by founding a language school. Father Petzold believes that dialogue and education are important for convincing young people to remain in their homeland.

Father Petzold reported that more than 600 people took part in the language courses offered by the monastery last year and 150 had started further professional training. The monastery also offers courses in psychology and philosophy. “Education makes it possible for Christians to break out of the vicious cycle of [living in] parallel societies and to develop a society based on universal civil rights—not on religious affiliation,” Father Petzold concluded.

Since 2014, when ISIS swept through northern Iraq, ACN has contributed more than $50M in humanitarian aid for Iraqi Christians. With its “Back to the Roots” campaign, ACN has been encouraging Christians to return to the communities captured and destroyed by ISIS. The objective of the campaign is to repair and rebuild the Christian homes on the Nineveh Plains that were damaged or destroyed as well as Church-related buildings, including 18 churches, monasteries and convents, schools, and hospitals. Currently, about 46 percent of the displaced Christians have returned to the towns and villages they once called home.

—Jacques Berset