As Christians in the Middle East look back on 2016, they wonder if there will be much to celebrate amid mounting challenges, particularly for those displaced by conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
"As much as we are pleased that our homelands from which thousands of Christians were forced to flee from the extremists have been retaken, we are very concerned about what lies ahead," Fr. Emanuel Youkhana told Catholic News Service by phone. He referred to Iraq's Christian towns of Qaraqosh, Batnayeh and Bartella, recently regained by the Iraqi military from Islamic State.
The archimandrite is a member of the Assyrian Church of the East and heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI.
Youkhana and others have expressed concerns that Iraq's Christians may once again be caught in the country's sectarian violence, this time by Shiite Muslims. If this happens, it will impede the Christians' ability to return home.
Iraq's majority Shiite population comprises the bulk of the country's reconstituted national army, and as it liberates areas from extremist Sunni militants, Iraqi Christians have seen worrying Shiite slogans scrawled on places and property that have always been "100 percent Christian," Youkana noted.
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The Ninevah Plain, a region rich in oil and the breadbasket of Iraq, has drawn interest from regional and local powers seeking to exert influence there. Christians are challenged by the widespread devastation Islamic State militants have wrought to the area that has been their ancestral homeland for the past 14 centuries.
The trail of death and destruction left by Islamic State was being fully revealed as the militants were flushed out. There were accounts that some Christians were tortured and crucified. Among the militants' threatening words still visible in red on the wall of a plundered electrical shop: "By God, we will break your cross."
"The volume of destruction carried out by Islamic State militants throughout the Ninevah Plain is hindering my people from returning to their family properties. Infrastructure, including drinking water and electricity, has been badly damaged, and what can we then say about the paramount need for security," Youkhana said.
He urged the international community to help Christians and other religious minorities to return home after their forced displacement by the Islamic State.
The militants invaded the Ninevah Plain in the summer of 2014, imposing an extremist and violent form of Sunni Islam and forcing tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians to flee for their lives. Many escaped with just the clothes on their backs, losing their homes, property and their livelihoods.
A number of displaced Christians venturing back to Qaraqosh to assess the damage told CNS that they could not live there again unless they get compensation and guarantees of protection from the international community. Houses have been burned, either to create a smokescreen against coalition aircraft bombing Islamic State in support of Iraqi forces, or apparently out of spite, while beloved churches have been violently ransacked.
"It's worse than we expected," said teacher Wisam Rafou Poli, trying to exorcise the presence of the militants who occupied his house by emptying its entire contents onto the street to be burned.
"I cried when we entered the house," his wife Zeena said, comforting their young daughter, who was mourning her favorite doll, found filthy and ripped.
Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan told CNS he was horrified to see the terrible devastation and what he called "ghost towns" during a visit to northern Iraq in late November.
He celebrated the Eucharist "on an improvised small altar" in the incinerated sanctuary of the vandalized Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh for the few who could attend the liturgy.
"I just wanted to strengthen their faith in the redeemer's altar and cross, although both were half broken behind us," the patriarch said. "I reminded them that we Christians are the descendants of martyrs and confessors, with a long history dating back to the evangelization of the apostles."
Younan called for a "stable, law-abiding and strong government" to support the establishment of an eventual self-administrative province in the area under the central government in Baghdad.
Meanwhile, about 5 million Syrians have fled the nearly six-year-old conflict, seeking refuge mainly in Europe. But the European Union tightened its external borders this year, overwhelmed by the arrival of more than a million refugees and migrants in 2015.
Pope Francis made a dramatic gesture by taking 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome with him from his visit to Lesbos, Greece, in April to see the conditions and perils experienced by thousands of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean. The Vatican also assisted other Syrian refugees arriving in Rome in mid-June. While the Vatican is covering the living costs of about 21 refugees, they are being housed and resettled by the Community of Sant'Egidio, a lay Catholic community based in Rome.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, reported that the number of people fleeing war and persecution have soared four times over the past decade, to 24 people per minute or more than 65 million people forcibly displaced worldwide.
Franciscan Fr. Francesco Patton, the new custos of the Holy Land, who is provincial minister of the Franciscans in almost all of the Middle East, told CNS in November Christians in Aleppo, Syria, believe the world is unconcerned about their situation.
"They feel often abandoned by the other Christians," he told CNS. "They feel that many Christians are not interested in their suffering or what they are doing to remain Christian there. Many of them have lost everything. The only thing they haven't lost is the faith."
Patton warned that Aleppo's Christian population has sharply declined from 250,000-300,000 to 30,000-40,000 during the Syrian civil war.
The Franciscan friars and other Catholic religious orders and aid agencies have worked tirelessly to help the local communities with food, electricity, water, gas, diesel, restoring houses after bombardments, regardless of their religious background. Patton said the Franciscans also try to build the bridges necessary to one day have lasting peace in the region, and it starts with children.
Still despite these challenges, the custos said, "there are many, many signs of hope, but we need eyes to see the signs of hope. If we are blind, we cannot see signs of hope."
[Contributing to this story were Doreen Abi Raad in Beirut, Rhina Guidos in Washington and Cindy Wooden in Vatican City.]