The next few months will determine whether Iraqi Christians can return
to their homes in areas where Islamic State had been routed, according to Msgr.
John E. Kozar, international president of the Catholic Near East Welfare
Kozar, who was in Iraq March 31-April 5, cited several daunting challenges for
Iraqi Christians who return to their country: infrastructure woes, burned- and bombed-out
buildings, desecrated churches and security issues.
liberated villages outside of Dahuk (in northern Iraq) are being resettled as
we speak," Msgr. Kozar told Catholic News Service in an April 7 telephone
interview from CNEWA headquarters in New York.
reason people are very hesitant to go back there is the reason of security. They
hold very close to them the reign of terror ISIS had produced. They're looking
for some reassurance from the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Peshmerga government,"
the military force that has liberated areas previously under Islamic State
control, Msgr. Kozar said.
reason would be there's no infrastructure. There's no water, no electricity, no
sewage," he said. "Those would be the single most difficult challenges
that need to be overcome. The next two, three months will tell the tale."
town, Batnaya, was 85 percent destroyed by aerial bombing, according to Msgr.
Kozar. "That one, I don't know what the future might be for that. It
looked to me like something out of World War II," he said. Another town, Baqova,
he described as "more burned out -- some aerial bombing but more internal
bombing -- but all burned out."
third, somewhat larger town of 25,000, Teleskov, was "only occupied for
nine days by ISIS. It was liberated after nine days, but it was then used by the
Peshmerga as a staging area until three or four weeks ago. They use the
distinction, 'It was liberated, but not free,'" Msgr. Kozar said. "People
accepted that to drive out ISIS from other towns and build up a fortification
line so it would not come back."
three towns had significant Chaldean Catholic populations. Chaldeans are one of the
Eastern churches, made up primarily of Iraqi Catholics.
Kozar also visited Qaraqosh, one of the cities in northern Iraq with a
significant percentage of Assyrian Catholics. He also visited with sisters who
had a convent in the city.
Qaraqosh "is heavily damaged but not destroyed," he said. "There are 4,000-5,000
homes burned out, but the structures -- thanks be to God -- are pretty fair,
but totally looted ... including seven Catholic churches and one Orthodox church,
burned internally, pillaged and defaced."
Kozar recalled the extent of destruction at Immaculate Conception Church in
Qaraqosh. The church courtyard, he said, was "all filled with soot, and
there's a heap of ashes in the center" as Islamic State had taken all of
the church's sacramentals, piled them up at the courtyard, and burned them. "ISIS
had used it for target practice," he added. "I even brought back
shell casings as a little memento of the tragedy there. There was so much
target practice there that they shot out two pillars in the courtyard.
defaced it in Arabic and German. ISIS had written really vile things about
Jesus and the church. The convent was burned and gutted. Everything was stolen.
Anything holy in their mind was burned," he said. "That town had
52,000 Catholics that fled. Almost no one has returned there yet, even though
technically it's under the control of the Iraqi military and, in some sense,
under the control of the Kurdish Peshmerga militia."
Most Iraqi Christian are not prepared to go back, he said.
they do? It's really a very difficult time. Even though, on the one hand, ISIS
has been routed within most instances, there's still pockets in Iraq where ISIS
other hand, staying in the refugee camps is not a good option. "Some
of the ISIS fighters have shaved their beards and are trying to sneak into the
(refugee) camps," Msgr. Kozar said. "This is part of that reign of terror."