When ISIS arose in 2014, the jihadist force swept across northern Iraq and carried out an ethnic cleansing campaign of Christian villages as part of a broader genocidal plan to wipe out all religious and ethnic minorities.
Approximately 100,000 displaced Christians found refuge in the Kurdish-controlled population centre of Erbil, said Philipp Ozores, international secretary general of Aid to the Church in Need. ACN, a papal humanitarian agency, closely monitors the situation on the ground, including the number of Christians who are still classified as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq.
After years of fighting, Iraqi, Kurdish and international forces have finally defeated ISIS in Iraq, driving them off the Nineveh Plain, the traditional homeland of ethnic Assyrians and other ancient Christian communities in the north.
This Christmas season, tens of thousands of displaced Christians are returning to their recently liberated villages for the first time in more than three years.
"The situation is hopeful in spite of tensions, which are still there in the region currently between the Kurdish Regional Government and the Iraqi central government," said the leader of Aid to the Church in Need, which serves persecuted and vulnerable Christians around the globe. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) has a permanent presence in Iraq.
"In spite of this tension, Christians are now already returning from Erbil, the regional capital Kurdistan, where they have been living since ISIS expelled them," Ozores said in a telephone interview from ACN's Montreal offices.
Ewelina Ochab, a legal researcher and genocide expert, is cautiously optimistic this Christmas season. "I do believe that many Christians will celebrate Christmas in the Nineveh Plain with more and more hope for the future," said Ochab, author of the 2016 book Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East.
Ochab has been to Iraq to collect evidence of genocide and interview survivors. For example, she met with displaced Christians in Erbil. She also visited a number of liberated towns and villages that had previously been under ISIS occupation, including Quaragosh, Karamless and Bartallah.
"There is definitely more hope than last year this time," she said.
Home for Christmas
According to International Christian Response (ICR), Assyrians and other Christians have been returning to their villages since before the Kurds held a referendum on independence in September. "Regional politics have weighed heavily against Christians, and other minority populations," said an official with International Christian Response (IRC) who is on the ground in Iraq. For reasons of personal security, the ICR official cannot be named.
"Most of the 18,500 refugees ICR deals with directly were helped back to their hometowns in or around Mosul," said Karen Ellis, who is also with ICR, serving as the organization's ambassador.
ICR is a humanitarian organization that provides spiritual and material support to Christians in places where traditional missionaries cannot go. According to Ellis, "ICR helped significant numbers of Christian families when they first fled the Nineveh Plain," providing life-saving assistance to IDPs living in harsh outdoor mountain camps.
More recently, clashes between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga on the Nineveh Plain disrupted the organization's plan to distribute aid to the returning Christians. Many of the IDPs reportedly had to flee again to Kurdistan when the fighting broke out.
"When Christians went back to the Christian villages after the [Kurdish independence] referendum, we promised to help them resettle in Nineveh Plain," Ellis said. "Over the next two weeks, ICR will distribute food to as many of these areas as possible."
According to Ozores, approximately 29,000 Christians have already returned to their villages in northern Iraq. "So this is great news," he said, adding that 70,000 Christians IDPs remain at Erbil for now. Displaced Christians are also currently living in other northern population centres, such as Dohuk.
"The level of destruction is very varied in the villages on the Nineveh Plain," Ozores said of what ACN found during inspections of liberated Christian areas. "We could see that almost 30,000 houses have been damaged in one or another way."
The inspections revealed that 8,200 Christian homes had sustained only light damage. "So it means that these houses can be made livable again for a relatively low amount of funding," said Ozores, who visited the Nineveh Plain earlier this year. And he hopes that all 100,000 Christian IDPs will eventually return to their homes.
Did ISIS booby trap Christian homes before they withdrew from the region?
"I only heard of booby traps in very few villages," Ozores answered. For example, he did not see any in Khatarah when he visited the Christian town. However, some of the homes had been destroyed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and ISIS explosives.
However, it was a different story in the abandoned Assyrian city of Batnaya in northern Iraq. "I could see the booby traps myself," Ozores recalled.
"The bigger problem was the mining of the fields around the villages in some areas, especially in the north between the battle lines of the Peshmerga Kurdish Army and the ISIS [fighters]," he said. The mines prevent returning farmers from working in their fields.
Fortunately, Ozores said, "there are now international teams clearing the fields of mines."
A safe Christmas?
Will Christians be safe in Iraq this Christmas?
"I don't think safety now is the biggest issue for them," Ozores said of the victims of ethnic cleansing. "They have been living in a state of extreme crisis in the last three years."
In some villages, there are hard feelings between Christians and Muslims. "In one or two smaller villages," Ozores said, "there are some tensions, which is unsurprising after what has happened in the last years."
According to Ozores, ISIS is "not in the picture" anymore in the villages on the Nineveh Plain. "No one is afraid of ISIS anymore."
However, the ACN secretary general acknowledged that "the Christians will also be taking some kind of security measures" to protect churches and worshippers at Christmas services.
"This Christmas won't be different from all other Christmas years," said Monica Ratra of the Canadian branch of Open Doors, an NGO that serves persecuted Christians around the world. "There always exists the risk of terror attacks, especially in Baghdad. But that could also happen on any other time of the year."
"Christians most definitely do not feel safe; there is too much uncertainty," the unnamed ICR official in Iraq asserts. "Right now the region is quiet, men have returned as well as some families, but those who have returned are very uncertain."
In the northern city of Mosul, the situation "is not really safe," the ICR official contends. "Sunni Arabs have switched to civilian clothes to infiltrate places without being detected, and there is much mistrust from the Shia Iraqi army toward the Sunni."
Ochab agrees that "safety continues to be an issue" in northern Iraq. "The region is still fragile and there is still no sustainable solution to address the security needs," she said.
"Over the last months and post-referendum, yet another issue came to light: the conflict between the Iraq and Kurdistan over the disputed territories [including the Nineveh Plain]," Ochab explained. "The conflict was exacerbated by the recent referendum that supported the independence of the KRG.
"The conflict escalated to the point that a few weeks ago, Christians had to flee from Teleskof out of fear of being injured or worse," Ochab said of clashes between Iraqi and Kurdish forces. "A number of civilians got injured. This is unacceptable. The people in Nineveh Plain have suffered enough."
Will this be a joyous or uncertain Christmas for Iraqi Christians?
"There is more hope for Christians in Iraq now than ever before in the last three years," Ochab answered. However, she added that post-war reconstruction and security issues must be addressed.
Moreover, Ochab stated that "interfaith dialogue and community reconciliation is not being discussed yet, but is a crucial step to ensure that Iraqi Christians feel like a part of the Iraqi community."
In addition, the genocide researcher said that "legal steps are yet to be taken, both to ensure that the Daesh fighters are brought to justice, but also to ensure that the rights of Iraqi Christians -- a minority group -- are adequately protected under the law and fully enforced."
Reconstruction and the future
Ozores said that it has been heartening to see the international Catholic community "rallying around the cause of the plight of the Christians in the Middle East." And he said that the suffering of Iraqi Christians has "woken up many Christians around the world."
However, International Christian Response offers a more sobering view of the situation in Iraq.
According to ICR's Karen Ellis, many of the Christians feel forsaken by the international community.
"They feel the abandonment most tangibly in terms of financial support, but the need is so much greater than food and Christmas celebration ... they need desperately to rebuild. People are persevering, but they can only hold on for so long," Ellis said of Iraq's long-suffering Christian communities. "While there may be spiritual growth in the region in spite of the hardship, we must pray that there will be relief from unrest in the region, as well as true justice and mercy."
Although there is no census data for Iraq, it is estimated that there were approximately 1.5 million Christians in Iraq before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country unleashed many waves of anti-Christian violence.
As bad as the situation was after the ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the plight of Christians worsened greatly with the rise of ISIS in 2014.
According to ACN's Ozores, there are only between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians left in Iraq. "Definitely, there is a very significant reduction" from 2003, he said.
Do Christians have a future in Iraq? Or will this be one of the last Christmases they celebrate in the Muslim-majority country?
"Christians will definitely have a future in Iraq," Ozores replied without hesitation. "The most critical point has passed. And we have a much reduced but significant base of Christians there.
"These people want to stay, and they have shown determination. And they will receive a means to do so," continued the ACN boss, noting that the needs of the Christian population are being met in the short run. "And then from there, no one can tell what will happen in five or 10 years."
Ozores pointed out that many Iraqi Christians are professionals "who are important for the Iraqi economy."
"No one knows at this point if the majority of Christians will stay in the region. It is difficult to say and hope is still infused with uncertainty," the ICR official of Iraq's ancient Christian population said.
"The reconstruction of the many parts of the Nineveh Plains is ongoing," Ochab said. "For example, in Quaragosh, one of the biggest Christian towns in the Nineveh Plain, over 1,000 houses have been refurbished and released to their rightful owners. Another 600 are being refurbished at the moment.
"The reconstruction is generously funded by organizations like Aid to the Church in Need or the Knights of Columbus."
According to Monica Ratra, Christians still have a future in Iraq. She stated that the Open Doors organization is also supporting Iraq's remaining Christians. For example, the NGO is doing its part by restoring houses in the Nineveh Plain and through "income generating projects, micro loans etc."
Joy and uncertainty
Will this be a joyous or uncertain Christmas for Iraqi Christians?
"For those who returned back home, it is indeed a joyous Christmas," the Open Doors Canada spokesperson said.
"On the other hand, it is a time of uncertainly for Christians, too, especially those in the Nineveh Plain, as so much needs to be done," Ratra said. "Schools are slowly starting with students coming back. As more teachers return, classes can begin full swing. Other businesses are slowly becoming operational. Life is just starting afresh.
"There are varying levels of trauma, discouragement and hope among every population during the holidays," the ICR official in Iraq said.
"It will definitely be both," Ozores said of Christians' mixed emotions this Christmas. "Uncertain, because the future is not 100 per cent sure for the whole area," he said of the tension between the Kurdish Regional Government and the Iraqi central government.
"On the other hand, it's a big moment of joy, because after three years, surviving in camps, and with brutal terrorists hiding in their homes, now they are able to return again. They are already seeing aid coming in," he said.
"Uncertainty, of course, is still there. We should not be naive; they are not. But they are very hopeful."
(c) 2017 Assyrian International News Agency