Patriarch Sako in Nineveh villages freed from ISIS

ERBIL: A visit of “sadness and suffering” at the destruction carried out by the Islamic State (IS), but also a “great hope” and a feeling of “waiting” for an imminent return and the beginning of a ” new reconstruction”.  This is what the Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Louis Sako tells AsiaNews, after visiting the villages in the Nineveh plain around Mosul liberated a few days ago by the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia. In some of these, for the first time in more than two years, church bells are once again ringing.

For the Chaldean primate, the visit is also an “important signal” to the faithful, to the country and to the international community: “These are our lands – he says – Christian lands and villages. These places are linked to our presence, and we will return here as soon as conditions make this possible. ” And it is also why “it is important not to emigrate but remain here in our land.”

The Chaldean patriarch, together with the auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, Msgr. Basil Yaldo and a group of priests and faithful yesterday visited some Christian towns in the Nineveh plain, a few days ago in the context of the offensive to retake Mosul, jihadist stronghold in Iraq. The delegation made a stop in Bartella, Karmles, Qaraqosh, Teskof, Baqofa and Btnaya.

The inhabitants were forced to leave these lands in a hurry in the summer of 2014, and with only the clothes on their backs as the jihadist threat advanced and then held the area in check for over two years. The majority of refugees live in shelters and homes rented by the Archdiocese of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, the common hope is to return to the villages.

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This visit “lasted over 12 hours and took in six villages” Mar Sako told AsiaNews, and even arrived “to two kilometers from Telkief” where battles for the liberation of the area are ongoing. “We prayed in all churches for peace and stability” and “met the generals” who are leading the military campaign against the Islamic State. ” “We told them – he adds – that they have done well”.

In fact it was the leadership of the Iraqi army and Peshmerga militias “who restored the crosses on top of the churches” devastated during these two years by Daesh jihadists [Arabic acronym for the IS], and “they did it with pride.” The army comprises Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs and Kurds and they “described  my visit an honor “, which is also “source of hope”. For my part, he adds, “I want to thank them for the work they are doing” and “I wish them many victories and the final liberation of Mosul.”

The military, continued the Chaldean primate, “have accompanied us along a journey of over 200 km”, in which “we have traveled destroyed roads ” and also faced “major risks”. “I am aware that we have taken a very dangerous step – he said – but being a shepherd also requires courage. The message I wanted to send … These are ‘our land’ and we are ready to return. We wanted to remind everyone of our presence and I hope that in the near future, other bishops will go to visit the area “.

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In recent days, statements by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan had raised serious concerns.  He had claimed Mosul for “Arabs and Sunni Kurds, along with the Turkmen”. The Iraqi Prime Minister al Abadi publicly rebuked such statements.

Mar Sako says he was not afraid during the visit, but experienced deep “sadness and suffering” for the bombing, devastation, destruction of the centers and houses and “the desecration of churches by the Islamic State”.

The jihadists “burned everything demolished crosses and left insults and threats against Christians written on walls.” The damage caused by the bombs are old, adds the Chaldean Patriarch, but the damage to places of worship “much more recent, probably were carried out before they fled”. Despite this there is also “the hope and the desire – confirms the prelate – to rebuild a life and a community” that have been living in the area for thousands of years.

Mar Sako says he was struck by “the many tunnels dug under the ground,” some of which “even through the churches.” “Kilometers of tunnels – he reports, amazed – and I wonder how much money and how much work it took to do all this … and what sense it  had.”

At the conclusion of the visit, the Chaldean patriarch reiterates the appeal already launched in the recent past for the work of reclamation of lands, fields and houses from mines and ordnance scattered by jihadists before leaving the area. “We have not been able to visit some sectors – he explains – because they are still littered with mines. Therefore it is very important to clean up the land, this is a basic necessity for the resumption of normalcy”.

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The military successes, adds Mar Sako, are “very important” and were welcomed “with joy and trepidation” by the Iraqi Christian community, in particular the displaced in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, whom “I have also met in recent days.” These victories “are a sign of unity among Iraqis, and we hope that this unity of purpose remains even after the complete liberation of Mosul and all the plain of Nineveh. Unity is essential for our future. ”

Finally, the evening before the visit to the villages of the plain, the Chaldean primate celebrated an ecumenical prayer in Erbil “for peace and liberation” of the Nineveh plain. The celebration which was held in the church of Mary Mother of Perpetual Help in Ankawa was attended by the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East Mar Gewargis III together with priests, nuns, religious and many people “among them also Muslims.” The Chaldean primate has finally launched the proposal to declare 2017 as the “Year of Peace” in Iraq to promote national reconciliation and avoid the danger of further wars and divisions.Asia News