Many feared that the invasion of their homelands would drive Christians from Iraq for good, but ten years after being driven from their homelands by militants of the Islamic State (ISIS), thousands of Christians have returned to houses in the Nineveh Plains rebuilt with the help of ACN, taking with them their love for the Church and the hope of the Gospel.

“Words cannot describe what we experienced 10 years ago, ISIS tried to eradicate us, but they failed”, said Nizar Semaan, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Adiabene, in Northern Iraq. 

Like Olive Trees 

ACN Middle East projects’ coordinator Father Andrzej Halemba distributes olive tree to a Christian family at St George’s Church, Bartela

“The people here are like olive trees. You can cut them, burn them, but after 10 or 20 years they will continue to give fruit. They tried everything, but we remain, and as a Church we do everything to give a sign of hope”, he added, during an online conference organised by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

Though outright violence has receded in Iraq, the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, who also took part in the conference, said that the current threat of a regional conflict involving Israel, Hamas, Lebanon and perhaps even Iran has Christians on edge, as they are aware that in these situations, they often become outright targets for fundamentalists or collateral targets in the wars of others. These divisions also continue to manifest in the political sphere. 

The Syriac Catholic archbishop confirms that ISIS itself no longer poses a serious threat to the Christian community but vanquishing the mentality that gave rise to it is another question. 

“The first way to deal with this mentality is to focus on education, not only with Christian schools, but we have to put pressure on the government to have a moderate education system to encourage people to respect others. The second way is to have a constitution built on humanity, not on religion. This will help the Christians to stay in Iraq, to get rid of this fear. We are always afraid. Whatever happens around us, Lebanon, Gaza, anywhere, the Christians are always affected”, said Archbishop Semaan.

Rebuilding houses and lives

At the height of the crisis, there was fear that if nothing was done the entire community would leave the Nineveh Plains and perhaps even the country. Since then, and thanks to ACN sponsored rebuilding projects, the news is largely positive, according to Archbishop Warda. “In 2014, we had 13,200 families registered, 11,000 of these families stayed. Nine thousand of those went back later to Nineveh. This is something to be thankful for.”


The first family to return to Batnaya in June 2019.

Around half the Christians from Qaraqosh, the largest exclusively Christian town in Iraq, whose population fled en masse before ISIS occupied it, have also returned. “Before ISIS we had 50,000 people in Qaraqosh, and now we have maybe 25,000”, said Archbishop Semaan. 

“The people are very much attached to the Church, when they have a problem with the police, or a medical situation, they don’t go to the elected officials, they come to the bishop. That is why I encourage you to help the Church pastorally, because if the Church is strong, the community will stay”, says Archbishop Warda. 

Any other person might complain about this exhausting lifestyle, but not these bishops.

2018 Procession for Palm Sunday by the Chaldean Church in Ankawa led by Archbishop Bashar Warda

“It makes us feel that we are alive. Our phones are never off, we have to take calls, we open our doors to everyone. That is what Church means. Our people are attached to the Church, and that is good”, affirms Archbishop Semaan.

For ACN seeing the Church in Iraq alive and well, despite reservations and fears, is a sign of a job well done.

 “When ISIS invaded, the Christians fled to Kurdistan, where they were at least safe, but most of them had nothing to their name. ACN was the first international organisation to go to their assistance. Over the following years we helped first to secure the basic needs of the displaced, then housing, and finally the rebuilding of their homes, so that those who wished to return to their towns and villages could do so, once ISIS had been pushed back”, said Regina Lynch, executive president of ACN International, who also spoke at the conference.  

ACN has been running projects with the local Churches in Iraq since 1972. In July 2014, ACN was the first organisation to help on the ground, and since then the international charity has supported nearly 500 projects of aid, from immediate humanitarian assistance to reconstruction projects and scholarships.