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?