2 March 2018
The Rev. Thabet Habeb Yousef, a Chaldean Catholic priest from Iraq, says the people of his town are working to rebuild and hold on to hope after the devastation of ISIS. (photo: Greg Kandra)
Earlier this week, a visitor from Iraq stopped by our New York offices: the Rev. Thabet Habeb Yousef, a 42-year-old Chaldean Catholic priest from the town of Karemlesch in the Diocese of Mosul.
Father Thabet serves as the sole parish priest at St. Adday Church in the town. With the arrival of ISIS in 2014, hundreds of Christians fled, settling in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. They have only recently begun to return home.
What they found has been heartbreaking.
“We have 756 houses,” Father Thabet explained. “241 were burned by ISIS, 112 houses were attacked by armed forces, destroyed completely. Others had partial damage. ISIS also damaged the infrastructure. Many mines were left in the fields, in the houses. You can’t imagine. It was a miserable situation.”
But slowly, he said, the people have begun to reconstruct the town, thanks to the generosity of various church charities. And he has worked, as well, to restore a sense of purpose and hope.
“We are working with zeal,” he said, “with spirituality, to give hope. I told them when we were away, ‘One day we have to return, we have to recover our identity.’ This was a way to encourage them to return.”
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While he is in the United States — he will be visiting family in Detroit for a few day before returning to Mosul — he says he gets regular emails from his flock.
“Each day, they send me a message,” he explained. “They ask, ‘When will you return? We are waiting for you! Father, stay with us.’ They have been encouraged to stay and they want support.”
Much support, he said, comes from the faith of the people, and understanding their purpose in that part of the world.
“They have great hope now,” he said. “They know their vocation is to stay here, because Iraqi Christians have a mission here, to be the light in the darkness. The situation in Iraq is very bad. But the Muslims know we are Christians, we are people of peace and love. If we leave Iraq, we take that with us. Our future needs to be there.”
Christians have deep roots in the region, he said, going back to the first century.
“Our role is to understand that,” he said, “and to understand there is grace in being there. Many Christians around the world have extended their hands to us, to encourage us, so we have hope. We are one Body of Christ. So my message to the world is, please, do not forget us.”
And his message to his flock?
“Christians are still here,” he said with a smile. “ISIS tried to get rid of us. But they didn’t. Our return home means hope. It is a kind of a victory, really. The Christians in Iraq are heroes.”
For a powerful look at what some displaced Iraqis are facing when they return home, watch the video below by Raed Rafei.