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What Becomes of the Persecuted Christians of Iraq and Syria?

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Four months ago, I was nine miles from Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, newly liberated this week from its three-year nightmare of ISIS occupation.

Visiting the empty Christian towns and villages, I realized that once ISIS was driven from Mosul, the task of rebuilding would be enormous. Houses were destroyed, burned, or booby-trapped, and there was zero infrastructure — no water, no electricity.

The destruction in Mosul, and in many parts of both Iraq and Syria liberated from Islamist extremists, is on a scale many say they have not seen since World War II. Some reports say the fighting to liberate Mosul was as fierce and destructive as the battle of Stalingrad.

The task of rebuilding and giving viability to the populations of these places will be far beyond the capabilities of the authorities in these countries. Aid will be essential — from Europe, the United States and, critically, from the super-wealthy Sunni Gulf states, which singularly failed to take in refugees from the conflict.

But what of the thousands of Christians and other religious minorities such as the Yazidis, who were forced from their homes by ISIS with only the clothes they were wearing — and who endured rape, kidnapping, and murder? How will they return to neighbors who betrayed them, stole their houses, and cooperated with the Islamic State demons?

One Iraqi priest from Mosul told me his neighbors had taken his house and that his 800-year-old church had been used as an ISIS torture center. "It is impossible for us to live with these people," he told me.

While in Iraq in March, Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register and I were the only journalists in the English language to interview a Christian family that had been forcibly converted to Islam — and lived under ISIS control for three terrifying years in Mosul.

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Two brothers, their sister, and their elderly mother spoke of the horrors of daily life. ISIS soldiers would literally smell the fingers of the men to detect if they'd been smoking. ISIS female religious police would bite women's hands if they were wearing rings on their fingers. There were beatings and public executions. (go to page 2 to continue reading)

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Although not reported often in the Western media, the Sunni residents of Mosul welcomed ISIS enthusiastically — at least initially. Long before the name of the Islamic State existed, murder and kidnapping had been part of the daily life of Christians in the city. Fr. Ragheed Ganni, for example, who will possibly be the first canonized saint of the genocide, was killed in 2007 along with three deacons.

At this time, Christians were leaving Mosul in large numbers, mainly for the Christian towns and villages on the Nineveh Plain, since sectarian violence exploded after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It is sad, though realistic to say, that we're unlikely to see most of the Christians who lived in Mosul being able to return. But if the Christian towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain can be protected, then things might be different.

There is some good news, although once again it's unlikely to be covered by the Western media for political reasons. In Syria, where Islamist forces have been defeated by pro-government forces, rebuilding is starting and people are actually returning — giving the lie to the story that refugees will not return.

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I heard from a resident of Aleppo just the other day that Christian families are returning and that roads are being put down — but you will not hear that on most broadcasts; it doesn't fit the narrative. Archbishop Jean Clement JeanBart, the Melkite Catholic archbishop of Aleppo, has called for foreign businesses to help people create jobs, since, as in Iraq, people will only stay if they have work.

Up until now, the agencies that have been helping the Christian refugees have concentrated mainly on food and housing, and those needs continue. (And it has been almost 100 percent church agencies, groups such as Aid to the Church in Need, Samaritan's Purse and others.) But it is essential now that those working to help persecuted Christians return to their homes have a shift in mindset toward micro-financing and job creation.

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This has not been part of the strategy up until now. For those who want to help, the expertise of business leaders in the U.S. and other countries will be desperately needed. So often people want to help, but they do not know what to do. Yet factories can be built, and businesses can be started.

If parts of the Nineveh Plain can be protected and the liberated areas of Syria remain stable — with investment, security and goodwill — the people will not only return but prosper. The question remains: Will Christian business leaders in the West invest in the future of their persecuted brothers and sisters?

Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East. 

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