The liberation of Mosul: Christians are doubtful and cautious, “Daesh suffered a military defeat, but its ideology lingers on.”

The fighting is ongoing in Mosul, nearing its liberation by the Iraqi army, the same army that in 2014 withdrew before the advance of the Islamic State militia, abandoning harmless civilians to their fate and forcing thousands, Christians in particular, to flee. This liberation has a deep symbolical value. In fact, Mosul is the city where al-Baghdadi proclaimed the birth of the Caliphate. Christians view the battle of Mosul with detachment and caution. The personal account of the Chaldean priest Father Paolo Mekko: “Many churches have been destroyed. What will be the use of rebuilding them if Christians should not return?”

(Foto: AFP/SIR)

Iraqi flags flap on the rooftops of the neighbourhoods liberated by Bab al-Saray and Makawi in Mosul’s old city. The assault on the historical heart of the second most important Iraqi city was launched on June 18, with considerable difficulties, forin many cases, upon their withdrawal, the Jihadists have used civilians as human shields. The Iraqi forces regained control also of Ibn Sina Hospital and of various medical centres, recapturing the entire area of Al-Shifaa, where the hospital is located. Past Thursday the Iraqi forces had recaptured what remains of the al-Nuri Mosque, where in 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had proclaimed the rebirth of the Caliphate. In the meantime, the battle is ongoing to drive out the last fighters of the Islamic State (Daesh) that still control a small area. The words of Yahia Rasoul, spokesman of the Iraqi army, are especially significant, “The Army is advancing in the Old Town. The victory in the west of the city will be announced shortly.” The news was confirmed to SIR by Father Paolo Mekko, Chaldean priest from the diocese of Mosul, very active among Christians of the Iraqi city and of the Nineveh Plains, now sheltered in Erbil, Kurdistan. “At present, in the Eastern area of Mosul the situation appears to be calm. Iraqi army advance in the western area has in fact stalled, for the past three months, the launch of rockets by Daesh to the East. Heavy fighting is ongoing in the historic centre of Mosul where the many streets are narrow, and it’s hard to move. Many civilians are still there. But the full liberation is a matter of days.”

Father Paolo Mekko (to the left)

Cautious Christians. What is seemingly a piece of good news doesn’t warm up the hearts of the thousands of displaced Christians in the capital of Kurdistan, who are cautious before the ongoing developments. The reasons are explained by the same priest:

“Daesh has been militarily defeated, but its ideology is far from having been overpowered.

It will take time before those who fled – including Christian faithful – will return to Mosul and resume a possibly normal life.” Once the city has been freed, he added, “it will be necessary to recreate stable security conditions and, above all, mutual trust among the various components of the population. Not to mention the reconstruction of the homes destroyed during the fighting, and the liberation of those occupied by Daesh in the past three years.” Thus a prompt return of the Christian population to Mosul is hard to envisage at the moment, while the Christian villages in the Nineveh Plains are slowly being repopulated. The heavy fighting prevents entry into the city to record how many churches and places of worship have been damaged, destroyed, or occupied.

“In the city – said Fr Mekko – there are Christian churches and cathedrals, for example the church of Saint Isaiah and of the Immaculate, some dating back to the 4th century, more ancient than the al-Nuri Mosque. We have many photographs of destroyed or damaged places of worship. Unfortunately we have no idea of what is left inside them: if the sacred ornaments and objects are still there. We know that some churches were converted into garages.

As soon as possible I will travel to those areas of Mosul to verify the situation in person and see what can be done to rebuild or restore.”

A great doubt. However, Father Mekko, has a major doubt: “If Christians don’t return,

Without the people, what will have been the use of rebuilding the churches?”

The same goes for their homes: “In Mosul, Daesh militia has occupied many houses that belonged to Christians, so did many Muslim families that support the Jihadists.” The hope is that once the city is liberated the homes will be returned to their legitimate owners. A dedicated Commission, tasked with verifying the situation of the occupied lodgings and ensure their return to the legitimate owners, is working on this, the priest said. “The members of the Commission include the Iraqi military and religious leaders.”

However, to ensure the return of the Christian population it is also necessary “to restore security and stability throughout the area, when Daesh will have been driven out. In this respect the Government should act seriously. Before 2014, hence before Daesh took over, the relations between the various political and military bodies were not good. They were marked by sectarian divisions between Shiites and Sunnis. Compared to the past, today there are orphans and widows, many poor people, while the economy is weak. These are factors of destabilization that could trigger further conflicts in the future, fuelled by revenges that for the time being are hard to prevent.” It will be hard for Christians to return to trust their Muslim neighbours. “As mentioned, Daesh’s mentality is widespread among many of them. This can be dangerous.

Many Christians are aware that when the Daesh militiamen occupied the city they were welcomed by many Muslims. Now we see the same expressions of enthusiasm towards the Iraqi military that have entered the city. Where is the truth? Can they be trusted? Security is a priority today. Without it there will be no returns nor reconstruction.”