Iraq will never flourish in the aftermath of the Islamic State onslaught unless its Christian communities are re-established, Cardinal Vincent Nichols has said.
The Cardinal, who visited Christian refugees in Erbil in northern Iraq this weekend, appealed to the international community to weave the country’s Christian heritage into whatever reconstruction took place after militants were driven out.
He reported that the Kurdistan Regional Government expressed to him its “modest confidence” in its ability to drive out Islamic State and described the eventual resettlement of displaced people as “the burning issue”.
But he insisted that without the immense richness of the region’s ancient Christian traditions, regenerated areas risked becoming “extended housing estates”.
“Without them this future will not work. We’ll simply try and recreate areas that might be safe but would be colourless and therefore less than human,” he said.
He went on: “Now we have to get the fabric, the feel of that immensely rich way of life back. That’s why religious traditions are absolutely key to the solution. Political leaders, do not think of the religious life, particularly the Christian life in this area as a problem. Please think of it as a major part of a solution that we have to fashion.”
The Cardinal spoke movingly of his visit at a press conference in London on Tuesday. During the trip he visited six centres for displaced people, five for Christians and one for Yazidi. He also met with representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government and participated in Orthodox liturgies for Easter.
Reconciliation and forgiveness, which he said were profound and core elements of Christianity, would be essential to resettlement, he explained.
“I say that not out of a nostalgic sense that this is a Christian community that’s 2000 years old. This is an issue of building a stable, balanced society in that region, and it is perfectly obvious to me that a Christian presence is essential to that mosaic,” he said.
He also spoke of his very great admiration for the work that the Church had done for the some 125,000 refugees that poured into Erbil after Christians were driven from their homes in Mosul and Christian settlements in the Nineveh Plains were destroyed.
Most of those refugees now lived in centres supported by the Church, with up to eight people sharing a cabin, he revealed. He called on the international community to help strengthen the region’s infrastructure, to help supply medicines and the technical expertise that would be needed to clear ruins that had been booby-trapped by retreating IS militants.
He backed calls by the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, to establish a fund to support returning refugees. But he said that local leadership was perhaps more essential and inspiring.
“The first priest that we met was kidnapped in 2003 and held by ISIS for nine days,” he recalled. “Nine days blindfolded, a gun at his head, often clipped as a threat. He did not have anything to drink for four and a half days. His courage in not only surviving that but now being a creative, positive-thinking leader of these people – you cannot replace that, you cannot bring that in from abroad.”
The Cardinal, who was visibly moved, continued: “He said the one thing I can never do, now, is go to sleep without a glass of water by my bed. He’s a brave, brave man.”
Above: Cardinal Nichols visits Christians in makeshift camps in Erbil. Christians, Yezidis and others have sought refuge from ISIS violence in their former homes around Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. Photo: © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk