IRAQ – Archbishop Nona: “I was bishop of a diocese that no longer exists”

“The diocese of Mosul is no longer, swept away when the self-proclaimed Islamic State sowed terror in the plain of Nineveh. But this diocese will come back, and so hopefully will the people,“ states Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona, who is now Bishop of the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle in Australia. Today, after living as a refugee in Kurdistan, he lives in Sydney where he directs the Chaldean Catholic eparchy in Australia.

Mgr Nona, Emeritus Archbishop of Mosul, spoke during a meeting organized by Aid to the Church in Need about his city, which he led for four years from November 2009 until the arrival of ISIS who hunted down Iraqi Christians. He came to Mosul in 2008, succeeding Bishop Paulos Rahho who was killed in circumstances still not fully clarified.

He recalled that when ISIS took possession of Iraqi cities, “Christians all fled. There were about 10 thousand before 2014 and more than 100 thousand in the Christian villages of the Nineveh Plain.” Today , he stresses they are living in Erbil and Kurdistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Many are waiting for a visa to emigrate, especially to Australia. “Waiting for the visa takes at least two years, but there are those who, in the fields in Kurdistan, wait for the Iraqi army to free the Plain of Nineveh and Mosul.”

Their hope may prove in vain, explains the Archbishop. “Freeing Mosul is not easy. The city is large and in the Nineveh Plain, there are many villages. We look forward to see what will happen in the coming months. Many displaced people, not only Christians, expect to return to see what happened to their property, houses and land – whether they can get them back or not. And then they will decide whether to stay or not.”

The position of Christians is even more complicated. “For our faithful the hope of coming back and staying is getting less and less,” says Mgr Nona. “The first people who began to steal from our homes were our Muslim neighbours. So today there is less trust.” Christians had lived for 40 years alongside Muslim families, who then hunted them down and robbed them. He asks “How can we expect our people to return, in the future, to live in such an insecure environment?” The hope, however, is that “the Christian community of Mosul can be reborn and with it the villages of the Nineveh Plain. But this will happen only if there are ideal conditions. Our people expect international guarantees and government to return to the area. Otherwise, I repeat, it will be difficult. “

It is a small sign of hope in a situation that has more negatives than positives. “It’s very difficult for Christians to come back to Mosul” he says because “Everything has changed since ISIS conquered the city. People have changed, and after 2014 many of them have considered other options for their lives. Perhaps they will remain in the North, in Kurdistan. “

The future of Iraq is uncertain believes the Archbishop . “I think that Iraq will be divided into states. Where there are Sunnis, Shiites cannot live, and vice versa. Because of this, Iraq will become a weak country, divided from within. The problem is the Iraqi people: the 2003 violence has changed the people, there is now no longer the coexistence between people that was there before, that respect for the different. Today everything has changed.”

There are also positive aspects says Nona. The first is that “our Christians remained, they were not converted to Islam, did not give in.” And the second is that “in this situation, we felt the fellowship of other Christians, especially the churches of Europe, America and Australia. It was very important for us, not only the material help but to feel that there are other Christians nearby. The material help has made it clear that the Church is strong.”

Mgr Nona feels the Pope’s visit to Georgia, where he met with the Patriarch of Babylon and seven other bishops of the Chaldean Synod and was the first Pope to enter an Assyrian Chaldean Church, emphasised the closeness Iraqi Christians feel: “I think it’s a sign of hope for Christians in Iraq, the fact that the whole Church, represented by the Holy Father, is with them.” He expressed his wish that maybe one day the Pope would visit Iraq, though admittedly this could not happen for many years because of the security situation.

ACN Malta