By Daniele Piccini
Sometimes unusual circumstances require that priests have to step out of their strictly pastoral roles. On the Nineveh plains in northern Iraq, ISIS has left in its wake some 13,000 damaged or destroyed homes belonging to Christians eager to return to their ancient communities. To help them, a number of priests have taken on the role of engineers and master builders.
Syriac-Catholic priest Father Georges Jahola is a case in point. After celebrating Mass, he is often occupied with ordering electrical equipment, window fittings, sanitary equipment, and other building materials. “Here in Iraq, if the Church does not tackle these things, who else will do it? We have the skills, the ability to engage in dialogue, and the necessary contacts,” explains the priest. Formerly based in the newly liberated city of Qaraqosh, he is a member of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC), which is tasked with planning and supervising the rebuilding of thousands of Christian homes.
In Qaraqosh, no fewer than 6,327 homes belonging to Syriac-Catholic Christians are in need of rebuilding—at least 108 of them are totally destroyed—while some 400 homes belonging to Syriac-Orthodox faithful need attention.
However, there is no lack of enthusiasm or ability. “After the liberation of the town, between [in the late fall], we spent 15 working days photographing 6,000 houses in Qaraqosh,” Father Jahola told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. He added: “We divided them up and mapped them sector by sector, assessing the degree of damage in each case. There are houses that have been very badly damaged or even destroyed, which need complete rebuilding; and there are houses that have been burned or struck by missiles, which can still be rebuilt. And then there are houses that have been only partially damaged and can be repaired without much difficulty.
“We began work with a team of 20 volunteer engineers. Today, I have 40 of them helping me and almost 2000 able-bodied workers ready to start work. We are optimistic about it. The reconnection of the electrical supply is slowly being extended throughout the town.”
The first rebuilding projects are focusing on those villages where ISIS forces only stayed for a short time, without doing too much damage. “We have begun rebuilding work in Teleskuf and Bakofa, because the damage to the houses is not too serious, unlike in Badnaya, where 80 percent of the houses have been destroyed.” This assessment came from Father Salar Boudagh, 35, vicar general of the Chaldean Diocese of Alqosh and also a member of the NRC, with a special responsibility for the rebuilding work of five Chaldean Catholic villages on the Nineveh plains—Teleskuf, Bakofa, Badnaya, Telkef and Karamless.
“Before the arrival of ISIS,” said Father Salar, “there were 1,450 families living in Teleskuf, 110 in Bakofa, 950 in Badnaya, more than 700 in Telkef, and 875 in Karamless. For these families, the first precondition for returning to their villages is security. Our area, the eastern part of the Nineveh plains, is patrolled by a Christian security force, the Zeravani, who can give us a 100 percent guarantee of security. They are an official militia whose members are paid a salary by Kurdistan,” the semi-autonomous part of Iraq that has sheltered up to 120,000 Christian IDPs since the summer of 2014, when ISIS captured Mosul and the Nineveh plains.
Financing the process is a big hurdle. The almost 13,000 houses that now need rebuilding, following the ravages of ISIS, have been divided according to the levels of damage. “It costs $7,000 dollars to refurbish a home that has been lightly damaged,” Father Salar explained, reading the figures from his smartphone. “To repair a house that has been burned out costs $25,000; to rebuild a house that has been totally destroyed costs $65,000.”
“I pray to God,” he concluded, “that the benefactors of ACN, who have helped us so much up till now, will continue to help us in every way possible—to rebuild our homes and our villages, to encourage the families to return and re-establish Christianity in the land of the prophets.”