By Weam Namou
A week after the liberation of Telkaif, on January 26, 2017, Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako and Bishop Basilo Yaldo visited the town to have a close look at its current situation. They were accompanied by a large crowd that included Christian families who requested for the Chaldean Diocese to help provide services to the town, as well as reconstruct the church, houses, and administration destroyed by the Islamic State.
Even though the streets were mainly rubble, the families were overjoyed to set foot on their ancestral land where they had lived before ISIL forced them out in 2014. They were also happy to witness the Chaldean Patriarch re-open Sacred Heart Chaldean Church. ISIL had changed the name of this church to “Abu Talha Al-Ansari” and had used it as a military base to train the Caliphate’s children.
The highlight of the day was when, to the sound of bells ringing, a young man named Sufian Jarbo held a large cross and led the group toward the church. They ascended the steps, reached the church dome, and standing at the very top of the church, Jarbo raised the Chaldean flag and placed the cross over the dome. The crowd clapped and cheered with women making the traditional Middle Eastern mirth and throwing small wrapped candy into the air.
For Jarbo, this day signified bringing back part of the Chaldean peoples’ dignity. “What they did to our cemeteries is a big insult to us,” he said.
It was an emotional day for everyone there, but after they returned to their temporary homes in neighboring villages, Jarbo and others want to know, what’s next? “Liberation is not just about placing a flag and cross over the church,” Jarbo said.
Jarbo claims that, two days after the church opened, the main road that connects Telkaif to Alquosh, was closed off. “The church is open, but empty,” said Jarbo. “The gravesites are still closed with dogs digging up the bones of the deceased and eating them.”
Jarbo was saddened to see his family’s two homes in Telkaif pillaged and abandoned. One was burnt. Same with their business, a gas station, it too has been destroyed. Others, including his friend Bashar Kisto were just as disheartened at the sight of Telkaif’s deteriorated state. Kisto wrote a poem expressing his sorrow and frustration at the fact that, although Telkaif is now labeled liberated, its gates remain locked to its original people, that the “The Great Wall of China is open but the wall of Telkaif is shut tight.”
“Our homes are in disarray, their doors still unhinged,” Kisto said. “The cats, dogs, and mice go between the windows’ shattered glass.”
While the people of Telkaif are eager to return and rebuild their town, where Christians lived for thousands of years, they can’t do so quite yet. “The problem is that families are afraid to return,” said Bishop Yaldo, “because the majority of the residents in Telkaif are now Muslims, and some were loyal to the Islamic State.”
The Bishop added that the Chaldean Diocese has begun the renovation of the Christian towns and villages, starting with the more stable areas such as Tesqopa and Baqofa, because of their proximity to Alquosh and the presence of services.
As for Telkaif, they are waiting for the liberation of Mosul in its entirety so they can rebuild the church and appoint a permanent priest. Only then can they encourage families to return. “Without the liberation of Mosul, the dangers of the Islamic State will continue to threaten the families because Mosul is near Telkaif,” the Bishop said.
Jarbo says that the Christian Iraqis want pressure placed on the Iraqi government to force anyone who formerly sympathized with the Islamic State to leave Telkaif. “If we return, we would need protection by an international force and an administrative unit,” Jarbo said. “We also have to have constitutional rights. Otherwise, Telkaif was liberated without actually being liberated.”
Although the Christians, who have taken shelter in Alquosh and other areas that offered them safety, will not be able to celebrate this Easter in Telkaif, the ultimate goal is for them to return to the Nineveh Plains.