IRAQ – Islamic State may be gone, but Mosul still faces a tough winter
Although the victims of Islamic State, both Christian and Muslim, are relieved that the terrorist group is being driven out of the Nineveh Plain area of Northern Iraq– a home of Christianity since the 1st Century A.D., the displaced former inhabitants of the region still face considerable challenges.
The Syrian Catholic archbishop of Mosul,Yohanna Petros Mochaz told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that while he feels “great joy” that IS has been driven out and Christian towns in Iraq have been retaken, civic trust has deteriorated, making moving back more difficult. Local Christians feel unsure who to turn to for safety.
Archbishop Mouchaz said that 75% of the homes in the now-freed Christian villages on the Nineveh Plain had been torched by local Muslims.
“Why did these people, with whom we were associated, do this? We ask ourselves whether this was their way of telling us that they will burn us to death if we return,” the archbishop said, adding: “We are afraid that we will have to continue to live with these people. We impatiently awaited liberation, and many wanted to return immediately, but there first need to be guarantees for our safety.”
Bruno Geddo, head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Iraq, also expressed concern that the tensions and continued fighting against ISIS may lead to increased sectarian violence. He added that both international and Iraqi forces are taking precautions to reduce that threat.
As winter sets in, lack of adequate housing is also becoming a serious issue. In the two years of IS control, over 3.3 million Iraqis were internally displaced. Providing housing for refugees during the winter has been a primary concern of Catholic bishops in the region since the beginning of the Iraqi refugee crisis in 2014. Many refugee camps are not weather proof, and some offer only minimal protection from the elements.
The housing problem affects both Christians trying to return home – only to find their homes burned – as well as Muslim who fled from fighting in the area. Bruno Geddo fears that the cold weather and housing shortages, along with ongoing fighting, may precipitate a housing crisis in the coming months.
Geddo said that the U.N. is preparing for a possible mass migration of up to 700,000 refugees – mostly Sunni Muslims – due to harsh winter conditions in Mosul and surrounding areas. There is great concern about the lack of housing for all the refugees.