As Iraqi-led coalition forces fight to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul and surrounding areas from the Islamic State, two Nineveh towns that were once home to hundreds of Christian families have finally been liberated from the barbaric death cult, according to the Archbishop of Erbil.
Speaking to The Christian Post on Friday, Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda said the hopes of thousands of displaced Christian families are on the rise knowing that there is finally a concentrated ground effort to reclaim and liberate their homelands from IS.
It was reported earlier this week that Iraqi-led forces, including Kurdish Peshmerga troops and Christian militia fighters, have besieged and are battling to liberate the once-largest Christian town in Iraq, Qaraqosh. Warda told CP that coalition forces have already liberated two smaller Christian villages of Bartella and Mar Oraha, which are situated just miles outside of Mosul.
"These are two Christian villages. Of course, no one was there because they were evacuated two years ago when Daesh forced the Christians to leave these two villages and other villages," Warda said, using the Arabic acronym for the terror group.
"[Displaced] people were delighted yesterday and they gathered at the church in Ankawa," Warda added. "They prayed with candles. The place has been liberated and people are waiting for the rest of the Nineveh Plains to be liberated."
Warda explained that before IS took over much of the Nineveh Plains in 2014, the total Christian population in the region was about 125,000.
"It varied from big villages to medium villages to small ones," Warda said. "Mar Oraha was a small village because it has an old monastery there with a population of 30 families. But Bartella would be 700 families and more."
But after IS rose to power, Warda said all of the Christian families fled the Nineveh Plains.
Although it might still take months, even after liberating the region, for the Christian villages and towns to be secured enough to allow displaced Iraqis to return home, Warda assured that the spirit of the displaced families is high.
"For Christians, time was always a critical issue and we have been calling for this operation some time ago," Warda said. "But the focal issue was when would it be liberated. That was always the question that our Christians were asking because this would be a starting point for a real hope that they would be able to go back again and they would have to just wait for things to just be secured."
"Everyone knows that there will be a time between liberating these villages and securing these villages. But, their spirit is high. I assure you," he said. "The people are thrilled with the news and they are waiting and hoping that in the coming days more and more villages will be liberated."
According to a Peshmerga officer who spoke with the Kurdish news site ARA News, at least 24 villages in the Mosul area have already been liberated from IS control.
In the past two years, the Archdiocese of Erbil has been instrumental in providing humanitarian aid and shelter to thousands of displaced families who fled from their homes in the Nineveh Plains. The diocese had set up as many as 26 displacement centers at a number of their churches in the region.
Now, the diocese has only one large displacement camp at a church in Erbil that houses about 1,000 families and is now housing over 3,600 displaced families in rented houses throughout the Erbil area.
Warda told CP that the diocese is paying about $360,000 per month in rent to house the displaced families in these homes.
"We have now 1,200 houses rented by the church, which made possible for us to move all these families from the 26 camps we had to decent and dignified housing," he explained.
Warda said that about three families are housed per house.
"These houses provide a more dignified life for a family instead of being a tent or a prefabricated caravan," Warda told CP. "At least, a house where you share with the closest family you have as a relative. … There is family life going on. It is a completely different experience."
Although countries like the United States are giving the Iraqi government millions of dollars earmarked for food and humanitarian assistance, Warda said that his archdiocese has not received any money from the Iraqi government. The diocese is only getting money from churches, bishop conferences and religious organizations like Aid to the Church in Need and Knights of Columbus.
"Those are the ones who are helping Christians around the world. Churches are the only ones who are helping us," he said. "We haven't received any funds by the government. They don't care because of the corruption, because they are busy with so many other issues."
As the Mosul offensive is expected to lead to an increase of over a million more displaced individuals who are fleeing from the town, Warda said that it will take a greater international effort to help provide for these vulnerable communities.
"We already have 1,400,000, probably more, displaced people and the Kurdistan region is also suffering from economical crisis," he said.