Near an intersection at St. George’s Church, where ISIS had tunneled out a base of operations and set up a bomb-making factory, shops have returned. One year ago the storefronts sat charred and empty, ISIS slogans spray-painted across the walls. Today one is selling generators, another lightbulbs, and two doors down is a shop selling refrigerators and washing machines. Grocers have strung bright awnings over stands selling produce, meat, and spices. Reopened restaurants serve customers at tables and chairs arranged outside.
Throughout the sprawling Nineveh province where ISIS expelled about 120,000 Christians in 2014, the churches are leading a self-starting campaign to reoccupy their hometowns. An umbrella group organized a year ago, the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, has spawned church boards in key cities, turning clergymen like Jahola into city planners. They are working across denominational lines—and without government funding or oversight—to recapture one of the longest-inhabited areas of Christian life in the Middle East. The work goes forward, too, amid a fragile peace.
More than 37,000 Christians have returned to Nineveh, but at the same time up to 6,000 families—perhaps 25,000 people—have emigrated abroad. Church leaders fear more will leave if their towns aren’t restored. “We have to rebuild now,” said Father Salar Kajo, a Chaldean priest and member of the committee supervising rebuilding efforts in the Nineveh towns of Telskuf and Batnaya. “If we take more time, families will leave and Christianity will disappear from Iraq.”
‘We have to rebuild now. If we take more time, families will leave and Christianity will disappear from Iraq.’—Father Salar Kajo
To facilitate returns to Qaraqosh, Jahola and his 16-member board—which includes Syriac Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, and Orthodox clergy, plus engineers and other advisers—divided the city into 10 geographic zones, all color-coded on another wall map. Within each zone the board spent weeks assessing every structure for damage and theft, using satellite imagery, photo documentation, and on-site damage surveys.
At the start, they knew the ISIS toll on churches: 52 partially damaged, 15 burned, and one completely destroyed, leveled flat to rubble. Soon they reached another sobering conclusion: Of 7,000 homes assessed, 99 percent suffered damage.