The patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church visited newly liberated Christian towns outside of Mosul on Wednesday and declared that “these are our lands.”
The six towns Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Louis Sako visited — Bartella, Karmles, Qaraqosh, Teskof, Baqofa and Btnaya — were drained of Christian residents who fled the ISIS advance two years ago. The jihadists ransacked churches, tore down crosses, beheaded statues and defaced religious mosaics.
Residents can’t return from their Kurdish refugee havens just yet as the towns need to be meticulously swept for booby traps. The Iraqi forces and Christian militiamen who took back the towns have already discovered IEDs in churches, left behind by ISIS.
Sako toured the vandalized churches — stopping to pray in each for “peace and stability” — with other clergy and Iraqi generals.
“These are our lands — Christian lands and villages. These places are linked to our presence, and we will return here as soon as conditions make this possible,” he said, according to AsiaNews.
The patriarch stressed that despite the “sadness and suffering” from the ISIS occupation “it is important not to emigrate but remain here in our land.”
Sako praised Iraqi army and Peshmerga leaders “who restored the crosses on top of the churches,” and “they did it with pride.”
The 12-hour tour took the patriarch and his group within a little over a mile from the front lines as Iraqi forces continued the push toward Mosul.
“I am aware that we have taken a very dangerous step, but being a shepherd also requires courage,” he said. “The message I wanted to send: These are our lands and we are ready to return. We wanted to remind everyone of our presence, and I hope that in the near future other bishops will go to visit the area.”
Sako saw “insults and threats against Christians written on walls” by ISIS that appeared to be recent, as well as “kilometers of tunnels” established by the terror group that even went through the churches.
“We have not been able to visit some sectors because they are still littered with mines. Therefore, it is very important to clean up the land; this is a basic necessity for the resumption of normalcy,” he said.
The Iraqi Christian community in exile, he said, has welcomed the liberation of their towns “with joy and trepidation.”
“We hope that this unity of purpose remains even after the complete liberation of Mosul and all the plain of Nineveh,” Sako said. “Unity is essential for our future. ”
Agenzia Fides reported that the Chaldean patriarch “wanted to send a message to everybody that these towns were once inhabited by Christians, hoping that they are determined to return soon to the cities of the Nineveh Plain.”
He has proposed that 2017 be declared the Year of Peace in Iraq, “promoted and supported by churches and Christian communities through moments of ecumenical prayer, workshops, and a variety of activities in order to promote a ‘culture of peace and harmonious coexistence’ in the country battered by sectarian strife,” the agency added.