The priest in the war zone
The windscreen has a huge crack nearly a metre long and large chips out of it, which could well be shrapnel damage. We are driving at an alarming speed across the arid scrubland of northern Iraq. Sunlight is streaming into the car refracting from the damaged glass. The man at the wheel is a priest called Father Thabet. Dressed in a simple cassock and dog collar, he has a sixth sense for the dangers of the road. He slaloms the car around numerous pot holes (or shell holes). The flat landscape stretches out in all directions as we speed towards the next military checkpoint. This is part of the Nineveh Plain; the ancient home of Iraq’s Christians, mentioned in The Book of Genesis.
Despite the awful things that have happened here in recent years, Father Thabet is an ebullient man. He is full of ideas about how to rebuild his country. He talks animatedly about the challenges and changes of the last few years. He is humble but determined to preserve the Christian faith in this place. As a priest on the front-line he has stood firm in the face of the terror and threat of ISIS. I admire this man’s courage and resilience.
The village of Karamles
We eventually arrive in Father Thabet’s village of Karamles. Islamic State took over the village in the summer of 2014. They reportedly burned an 80 year old Christian woman to death for “failing to comply with the strict laws of Islamic State”. Within days they had desecrated the biggest church in the village, St. Adday, attempting to burn it to the ground. The smaller and particularly beautiful Church of the Virgin Mary was also vandalised. Even the sanctuary of St. Barbara on the outskirts of the village was attacked. Thankfully, the attempt by ISIS to expunge Christianity from Karamles failed. They were driven out of the village in October 2016.
Despite the piles of rubble and bullet-strewn buildings which surround us, Father Thabet is excited. He gives us a good lunch and talks enthusiastically about restoration. I’m here with one of our Trustees, Christopher Segar (former Head of Mission to Iraq for the British government). We have hired a business consultant from the UK to speak with Father Thabet about the economic needs of the community. We are taken on a tour of the village and shown a map which indicates the extent of the damage. Houses marked yellow are ‘partly damaged’, those in orange have been ‘burnt’, and those marked in pink have been ‘destroyed’. Most of the houses have been coloured in on the map.
Seeds of change
That meeting with Father Thabet was several months ago. In an interview published this week, he confirmed that 382 of the 754 damaged houses have been repaired. We visited Karamles twice last year and saw this progress first-hand. But reconstruction of buildings is not the only thing which is needed. Christians returning to Karamles need jobs if they are to survive. Father Thabet had lots of ideas about this. From the setting up of an almond paste business to the drilling of wells, the key is long-term sustainability. One idea he shared with us had a certain symbolism to it – greenhouses. Indeed, growing food year-round is only done by people who intend to stay.
I am pleased to say this is no longer just an idea. Thanks to your support, we are establishing commercial greenhouses in Karamles capable of growing fruit and vegetables. The crops will be sold in local markets which will help boost the village’s fragile economy. We will share more about this in the coming weeks. Needless to say, Father Thabet is thankful to our supporters for their vital contribution. Four years ago, Karamles was a ghost town. It has since been rescued from disaster and with your continued support we are confident it can thrive once again.
Mike Simpson, CEO
How to make a donation
To support our work in Iraq and Jordan, please make a donation now via our donate page (there are numerous options for how to donate). Or you can send us a cheque made out to ‘FRRME’ to: FRRME, PO Box 229, Petersfield, Hants, GU32 9DL, United Kingdom. Thank you!