Starting from zero
Iraq’s Nineveh churches are retaking their towns from years of ISIS control, without guarantees of money, safety, or a future
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Father Georges Jahola sits hunched over his laptop, his clerical collar just visible underneath a jacket he’s forgotten to remove. The parish priest is studying spreadsheets and cadastral maps of his hometown in Nineveh Plain, Qaraqosh, while men and women scurry in and out of his office, questions flying amid a shuffle of papers in Syriac, Arabic, and English. The balding Jahola, whom everyone everywhere calls Father George, is the steady in the room, concentrating on the figures on his screen, then breaking into a slow smile that sends wrinkles around his wire rims before choosing which of the languages to use to answer that last question.
Jahola approaches the day’s frenzy with the deliberation you might expect from a parish priest, but the Syriac Catholic clergyman’s slim build and calm demeanor seem no match for the responsibilities he shoulders: As head of the church board for reconstruction in Qaraqosh, Jahola is in charge of rebuilding efforts underway in the largest Christian city in Nineveh Plain. That’s thousands of homes caught in the heaviest destruction outside of Mosul following three years’ occupation by ISIS.
Before the ISIS takeover in 2014, Qaraqosh numbered 60,000 people, nearly all members of Assyrian, Catholic, and Orthodox churches. ISIS took captives, including a 3-year-old girl named Christina, and sent everyone else fleeing under heavy fire. In November 2016 Iraqi forces with assistance from a U.S.-led coalition fought the Islamic State militants street by street, from the air, above and below ground. After its liberation, Qaraqosh sat empty and in ruins: The militants torched homes and churches, left wired explosives everywhere, and tunneled extensively under the city. When I visited Qaraqosh three months later, the odors from burnt metal, oil fires, and decaying flesh hung in the streets (see “Iraq’s grisly liberation,” March 18, 2017).
That’s why, instead of presiding over prayers or sacraments (though Jahola does those things), the priest more often is at his desk, a giant aerial map of the city hanging behind him and a spreadsheet charting progress before him. Since returning to Qaraqosh last September, Jahola has overseen reconstruction efforts for more than 2,600 homes. More than 1,200 are complete with returning families living in them.
Testifying to the community’s progress and determination are the sounds of power saws and machinery outside as Jahola talks. Across the street from his office a print shop has a floor-to-ceiling sign reading in English and Arabic, “Come in, we’re open.” A motorcycle swerves around dug-up sewer pipes while front loaders and tractors dodge oncoming cars.
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.
Jahola was undeterred, even though he also had displaced parishioners to care for in camps 50 or more miles away and was himself without a home or a church. “It is a problem but not impossible for God,” he said. “We have to arrange both, caring for day-to-day needs and for rebuilding. At the same time we have many people so we divide the work.”
The church board classified each home according to damage and made agreements with 12 NGOs to carry out the reconstruction. Together they identified homeowners and created detailed work plans on eligible homes. Costs average $25,000 to restore a burned home and $65,000 to rebuild a totally destroyed home.
All along the way, the board’s teams are documenting damage assessments and repairs. Someday, they hope, a war crimes tribunal or others will want evidence of atrocities. Someday there may be restitution for all that’s been lost. After all, most international bodies, the United States, and the European Union have ruled the 2014 ISIS attacks on Christians and Yazidis in Iraq as genocide.
“After liberation, it was worse than we expected,” said Jahola. “I have no idea, nobody imagined how we would find the city, these houses. They are burned, the furniture burned, everything destroyed. It was difficult. We start from zero.”
The NGOs are mostly regional church-based aid groups, but the largest efforts arise from U.S.-based Operation Blessing and Samaritan’s Purse, the Netherlands’ SALT Foundation, the U.K.-based Aid to the Church in Need, and the French Christian aid group L’Oeuvre d’Orient. They raised their own funding and began with rebuilding the least damaged homes.
Jahola and others told me the effort receives no funding or direction from the Iraqi government in Baghdad; no funds via the UN Development Program (UNDP), which has set up offices to assist in more populated Mosul and among mostly Muslim groups; and no word on U.S. funding since a pledge of assistance came from the Trump administration last November. UNDP has assisted in reopening schools in Qaraqosh and elsewhere. But the absence of an overall plan to rehabilitate Nineveh is a handicap, given the international attention and advocacy for ISIS victims.
On the street Nasser Michael, one shopkeeper, shakes his head when I ask about business. “The work is slow, like a person coming back from the dead. It will take time.” He paused over a display table where he was arranging hardware supplies, then added, “No one asked us to move back. But because we love our town, we moved back and we are starting over.”
Such outlooks can’t compensate for the glaring lack of international or national government strategy to rebuild. Months ago the Iraqi army delivered mobile cell phone towers and restored some electricity and water, but nearly the entire city lacks basic utilities. Roads are abysmal, cratered from fighting and sewage-ridden. Volunteer labor and sheer determination to rebuild are alone prompting the city’s comeback.
Down residential streets stacks of cement bags rise high outside homes where the shrill noise of power drills and clanging sledgehammers echoes off garden walls. Taraq Butros Tomas was applying gypsum to an outside wall on the day of my visit. One of his sons swept debris as we talked, while inside the tile man was working on the kitchen.
In many homes like this, ISIS piled all the household goods in one room, doused them in diesel fuel or kerosene, and lit them. The fires created noxious smoke damage, charring concrete walls and melting rebar supports without actually burning the houses down. This home, located in Section F on the church board’s color-coded map, is one of 148 homes in the section rated badly damaged but reparable.
With support from Samaritan’s Purse—which has 300 homes under reconstruction in Qaraqosh—workers have stripped charred plaster walls, installed new wiring, and begun work on the kitchen. Tomas was a fish seller in Qaraqosh before ISIS forced his family to leave. He moved back last September with his wife Janar and their eight children. They tried for a time to live in the house while working on it, but the noxious smells made them sick and they had to move out again. Now Tomas stays upstairs with several sons, while Janar with the other children, including one newborn grandchild, sleep in a nearby home without fire damage.
Still, it’s home. When I ask whether moving back has been worth it, he’s quick to respond: “Absolutely. This is our home. Even without an economy and jobs, we are home and we are together.”
Returning also means reckoning. Family members are traumatized all over again, shocked by the devastation and forced to remember life-and-death escapes in 2014. Some homes I visited remain full of rubble, yet the families live upstairs while they clean. Their furniture destroyed, they make do with repurposed boxes. Some have rushed to make repairs, plastering over structural flaws like damaged rebar supports. They have to be coaxed into tearing out walls and ceilings. A few families, worried about security and the lack of infrastructure, have decided to return to the camps.
For all those human and structural challenges, churches offer prayer times, and a new evangelical church is planned for the city, planted by the Alliance International Church out of Erbil to minister to returning families who’ve been living there. Samaritan’s Purse, too, has set up local teams to meet with families for prayer and support during reconstruction, explained Maria Andrawis, the group’s area coordinator: “It’s about more than rebuilding, than paint and plaster. It’s important to walk with families, for them to know they are loved and cared for and that they are not alone.”
Deeper challenges loom. Iraq has turned military control in Nineveh Plain over to Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) known locally as Hashd al-Shaabi. Formed with support from Iran and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an Iranian cleric living in Iraq, the units are made up of Shiites, many Iranian, operating in mostly Sunni Mosul and Nineveh province. Christian returnees rightly fear the PMUs as yet unchecked control over their homelands.
“The Shia presence in Nineveh Plain is alarming. In some areas it looks like we are losing the battle,” said Emanuel Youkhana, an Assyrian clergyman who heads CAPNI, one of the Iraq-based NGOs working with the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee. Youkhana pointed out a banner at the entrance to Qaraqosh depicting Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. “What does he have to do with Qaraqosh, or Iraq?” Youkhana asked.
Hezbollah is fighting alongside Iranian units to prop up the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria’s civil war. Hence, Iran’s help in Iraq’s war with ISIS and control now of north-central Iraq seems strategic: By controlling the Nineveh region through Mosul and across into Syria, Iran could open a corridor of military dominance stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Armed clashes between PMU fighters and Kurdish peshmerga units are not uncommon, and at any moment threaten Christian populations. Last year the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee with aid from the Hungarian government moved back 900 families to the town of Telskuf, just 10 miles from Mosul. One month later, as PMU and peshmerga units traded fire, the Iraqi army ordered the families out.
Those families are back now, holding worship services, reopening schools and businesses. But the upheaval left a lasting impression, according to Stephen Rasche, an American who serves as legal counsel for the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee: “Telskuf was the poster child for resettling the displaced Christians. There has to be a willingness on all sides to take them back, provide security in their villages and towns. But the message to Christians is that they are acceptable collateral damage in every political move that’s made.”
In the Nineveh town of Bartella, where 1,200 Christian families have returned and small businesses again are thriving, Shiites are completing a residential project on 25 acres outside town, according to Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of Mosul. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need in March, he said the project suggests “a plan to bring in people from outside the region” and called that “a threat to the security of the region.”
Privately, aid group leaders say the United States with redirected humanitarian aid could foster stability but funding necessary to make a difference was needed a year ago. A November announcement of U.S. aid was followed by silence until a late March meeting in Baghdad organized by USAID and attended by numerous aid groups. Talks centered on a $35 million U.S. initiative to minority Christian, Yazidi, and Shabak groups in Nineveh. The program is in a “research and assessment” phase, an attendee told me, and possibly a long way from implementation.
Most U.S. government funds appear headed toward the larger displaced Sunni Muslim population in the region. Even so, the $35 million proposal is a start: “It’s a good initiative, and we have to wait and see what will come out of it,” said Aaron Ashoff, regional director for Europe and the Middle East for Samaritan’s Purse.
Looking ahead, said CAPNI’s Youkhana, “is all conditional. NGOs are doing what they can, but government too has to do something. Until now we’ve had no national debate on what happens, who is in charge, how to prevent ISIS returning. What ISIS did in 2014 is called ‘cross-border terror,’ but no one has accounted for how ISIS came to take over a very well-trained Iraqi army and to conquer a city like Mosul.”
Formidable challenges ahead and threats on the ground only highlight the present progress. In Qaraqosh, “as in the Bible when Jerusalem was destroyed, always someone is against the reconstruction,” said Father Georges Jahola. “But they succeeded despite the odds.”
“He’s our Nehemiah,” said one of his colleagues. Jahola laughed and continued, “We are like those coming back from Babylon. We aim to succeed.”
—For more information on reconstruction efforts, visit the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee website at nrciraq.org
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