AsiaNews Symposium 2018: Fr. Paolo Thabet Mekko, rebuilding with the youth of the Nineveh Plain
The testimony of a Chaldean priest, the first to return to the Nineveh Plain, after the defeat and the expulsion of the Islamic State. The experience among the Mosul refugees in Kurdistan, in need of everything. The return to the Plain, where churches, houses and shops are rebuilt and the foundations of coexistence between Christians and Muslims for a new Iraq are laid.
Rome (AsiaNews) - Fr. Paolo Thabet Mekko offers his testimony to the AsiaNews Symposium 2018, "Youth who resist". The priest, the first to return to the Nineveh Plain, after the defeat and the expulsion of the Islamic State, has been an important reference point for the tens of thousands of Christian refugees who fled to Kurdistan in 2014 and is now one of the protagonists of the rebirth of the Nineveh Plain, where churches, houses and shops are rebuilt and the foundations of coexistence between Christians and Muslims for a new Iraq are laid.
Speaking of young Iraqis is a complex thing because the difficult situation in which they live casts an increasingly dark shadow over their youth.
The situation of young people in Iraq is not good: freedom is almost denied; speaking and criticizing the radical religious of today who control life in Iraq is almost impossible. Those who criticize and are an active person are likely to be killed in secret or excluded from social life.
In general, young people who are more sensitive and more willing to accept social and political changes are today also the most oppressed. It is even worse for young Christians because, on the one hand, the Christian is considered a minority; his rights are not taken into consideration. Especially since the country today is heading towards a distribution (of wealth, of territory, ...) along ethnic-religious confessional lines: Those who do not belong to large groups, have no say, the chances of having a government job are low, or subject to intense psychological oppression.
The biggest event that marked young Christians and many non-Christians was the flight in 2014 because of Isis. A part of the problems of today's youth depend on what happened with the Islamic State: death threats, loss of land and social coexistence; many values and projects endangered: work, studies, school.
The spirit of young Christians is disturbed by thoughts that become more and more common: the future must be sought outside of Iraq; if you stay, the best is to be paid by the government for a stable job; engaging in social and political life is of no avail. Trust has disappeared in the society that accepted Isis - or better, allowed itself to be occupied by them. These thoughts block the lives of young people and instill in them a passive nature that increases problems and anxieties.
Among refugees in Erbil
The Church has done all it could for young people and it has not been easy: finding them shelter, food and the basic necessities to make life bearable. It was not easy to provide food and clothing for hundreds of thousands of people, even though they had a primacy in charity.
And yet all of this is not enough to protect the dignity and the life of our youth.
To resist, the water must run in its normal direction. So our Church has worked preparing schools, finding places to continue university, offering seats at the state university, when people fled from the Nineveh Plain and took refuge in Kurdistan.
In Ankawa, the Christian district of Erbil we erected a distribution center; the diocese of Kirkuk gave accommodation, food, etc. for three years to 400 students, even non-Christians.
All these activities were an anchor that has made this community stable: we would not let it be dragged down by the winds of the great crisis. So, in the time of the flight, we prepared the spirits to face the second stage: the return after the liberation of the Nineveh Plain.
Just one note: [in Erbil] I ran a refugee center that took care of 145 families in many small apartments and offered everything necessary to 1200 Chaldean families in the diocese of Mosul. Being with them in all and for all gave them courage and trust in placing their hope in the Church.
The second stage was the great return to the Nineveh Plain and the city of Mosul after their liberation from Isis. I managed to arrive with the first Iraqi troops in the area and immediately I planted a cross on the hill. Then we saw signs of death and destruction throughout the area: the land had been burned; nothing was left and the smell of death was everywhere.
When people were able to start visiting their homes, they looked through the ashes for a souvenir or document left at home on the day of their flight. This gesture contained a message: It is impossible to return; the only thing we can do is leave tears and pain here and that's it; it is better to flee far from this scene because everything has been blown away with the wind.
The question about the rebirth of this area found no response, indeed, despair shrouded the question. Instead, faith gave the courage to resist and look for a bright spot that shines in this darkness.
And it is this: from the first days I set up a movement with young people and we went to our village to clean the sanctuary of St. Barbara, which is a symbol of my village. This church was almost buried for the earth excavated by ISIS to build a war tunnel. Every step in the work increased their enthusiasm and hope.
But it was necessary to convince people to return, to start again, remembering their mission, their past, their identity that gave meaning to their land. It was also necessary to put in place a practical plan to move towards their return. I confess that it was not easy and it is still not easy yet. Every time we wanted to leave, we were blocked because the area was considered a military zone and going from Erbil to there, we remained stuck; the materials and what you need for work, water and electricity were not there. The return seemed impossible. In addition, there was a rumor that we could never rebuild the area, which needed an international force and big companies, which were not there. And then it was concluded that the plan will never begin, or it would take at least 5- 10 years to complete.
If we had accepted this way of thinking, we would have all left Iraq and never returned. In fact some did go abroad to other countries in search of work.
What made these thoughts vanish was the realization that it was necessary to do what is possible. Thus, our plan started with the blessing of Patriarch Sako, with the help of the NRC a committee for the reconstruction of the Nineveh Plain and the private help of some Christians and thus we began. A great help came from the Knights of Columbus - USA and also from AsiaNews with "Adopt a Christian from Mosul". We needed to be encouraged by those who want to help us and at the same time, we had to give them the courage to help, which means: show them our desire and determination to return and give birth to this area again.
It was important to sacrifice fear, laziness, and believe strongly that we have no other choice outside of this. For many people everything remained difficult, but many others began to understand that it was convenient to return.
Today the work that we started a year or more ago has led to so many changes. A good number of Christians have returned, around 45 percent. This number is not high, but according to my experience, and knowing the psychology of refugees, it is a huge success.
On the one hand this gives courage to others to move, and on the other it makes them think differently, it helps them not to be discouraged.
Rebuilding from the young people
In addition to the main reconstruction work and normal pastoral care, we priests are looking for other pastoral activities, especially those for young people, and proposing social commitments to prevent them from becoming victims to boredom or despair, because of their harsh situation.
Right now we are trying to rebuild the cultural center damaged by ISIS, to start new pastoral projects. As a Church we try to respond to the various needs of young people: to help university students in any way, to prepare some sports centers that serve for a youth activity that goes beyond religious confessions. For example, we organized football matches between Christian and Muslim villages on the Plane.
We need to find ways to convince young people to stay, especially by strengthening relations with non-Christians. Personally I have used many opportunities for dialogue: to participate with moderate Muslim imams in the activities of young people in Mosul; directing young people to the common good and looking forward without prejudice; working together in reconstruction and helping Christian and Muslim families. Young Muslims also participate in parish festivals. The basics for living with others are there or at least we are working to put them there.
Another important point is finding work for the young people, now we are studying what is needed to start a few small businesses, or agriculture projects: in some land that the Church had, we are digging wells of water and we are teaching young people how to cultivate crops.
We also try to draw the government's attention to young Christians to employ them as members of the security forces, encouraging young people to participate, to join the military, or become members of the local police, to be more engaged in society.
Despite the great crisis, the faith of the young people is alive. In the flight we continued to live with them in tents, in containers, in inadequate places, holding pastoral and spiritual meetings.
However, we cannot deny so many limits and dangers that are being created.
Many people emigrated to neighboring countries. They have been in refugee camps for years, with children without school, in insecurity. In this way, the decision to respond to a vocation is postponed or ignored. Therefore time is wasted as is the vocational charisma, and the economy and the concerns I mentioned above combine to become a negative factor which delays the decision to respond to the vocation of marriage or consecrated life. But there are also shining examples: some young people have formed families even in the serious situation of flight; there were priestly ordinations, new seminarians. There are also charity groups, theology courses, spiritual festivals, youth activities. All these are illuminating points that support the light of hope.
What has been said is only a small description: the reality both negative and positive remains far wider and deeper. In any case, it is the starting point for the Church's mission