During a conference on rebuilding Christian villages on the Plains of Nineveh, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said Christians are an essential part of Iraqi society, and must strive to be witnesses of peace true reconciliation.

One of the greatest challenges in Iraq right now is “to restore to the Christian communities the environment of a normal life, essential for all the families in overcoming fear and despair, and looking to the future with hope,” Cardinal Parolin said in his Sept. 28 speech. The rebuilding of houses and villages, he said, “is the first and fundamental condition for the return of Christians to their own lands.”

However, beyond the rebuilding of cities and structures, Parolin said “there is the more important obligation of reconstructing Iraqi society and consolidating a harmonious and peaceful coexistence.” “Here, Christians have the specific position to be artisans of peace, reconciliation and development,” he said. And this mission, he added, is made all the more important in the context of current regional instability and “urgently demands a process of national reconciliation and shared effort by all parts of society to achieve shared solutions for the good of the whole country.”

Cardinal Parolin was one of seven panelists participating in a half-day symposium organized by the pontifical organization Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) on efforts to rebuild Christian towns and villages on the Nineveh Plains. In addition to Parolin, other speakers included Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, international president of ACN and prefect of the Congregation for Clergy; Archbishop Alberto Ortega Martin, apostolic nuncio to Iraq and Jordan; and Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad Luis Rafael Sako, among others.

During the symposium, one of ACN's reconstruction projects, titled “Iraq, return to the roots,” was presented. From 2014-2017, the project has financed various programs for Christians in Iraq, amounting to an approximate total of 30 million euro. Among the structures destroyed or damaged since the ISIS invasion of the Nineveh Plains in 2014, it is estimated that some 13,000 homes, schools, hospitals and religious buildings were completely or partially destroyed. The project, with a total estimated cost of $250 million, aims to continue providing a concrete response to Christians from the Nineveh Plains who want to return to their homes.

In his speech, Cardinal Parolin noted the significance of the fact that the project draws participation from the three main Christian Churches in Iraq: the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac-Catholic Church and the Syriac-Orthodox Church, each of which had representatives present at the meeting.

“May the cooperation between Churches be a tangible sign of unity in charity,” the cardinal said, and thanked the bishops for their “generous commitment,” urging them “to spare no effort before overcoming the sources of tension between the various communities in order to obtain a renewed unity.” “Such a witness of Christian unity is made all the more urgent and necessary by the complex situation that the country faces and the real danger of loss of the Christians and the Christian presence,” he said.

In addition to the challenges posed by violent extremism, the region has also undergone new threats to social stability with a Sept. 25 referendum held by the Kurdish Regional Government on whether to declare independence from the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. In the referendum, Kurds voted almost unanimously in favor of the referendum, prompting concern on the part of some that a declaration of independence would lead to war between Baghdad and Kurdistan, which would likely take place on the Nineveh Plains, again putting Christians in harm’s way.

In his speech, Cardinal Parolin stressed the need to work for unity, saying one of the greatest challenges in Iraq right now is “to create the social, political and economic conditions to enable a new social cohesion which favors reconciliation and peace.”

This also entails ensuring Christians and other minorities have full rights, he said. Christians do not want to simply be “benignly tolerated,” but want “to be citizens whose rights are protected and guaranteed along with all the other citizens,” he said. And without the option of returning to the cities and villages of their birth, “very little of the aforementioned would be possible.”

“Christian presence is fundamental in the Middle East for peace, stability and pluralism,” he stressed. “Each of the Christian communities have made their own contribution in the centuries.” The presence of Christians is in “constant decline” due to a lack of security and an unclear future, Parolin said, adding that the conflicts and tensions of recent years have made the situation worse, posing a risk “not only for the survival of Christians, but also for the very possibility that the Middle East can be a place of coexistence between peoples of different religious and different ethnic groups.”

He stressed the importance of safeguarding the rights of Christians by means of “adequate juridical instruments,” including their right to return home, their right to security and to religious freedom. “There is likewise a need to address the root causes of the phenomenon of terrorism and to promote inter-religious dialogue, mutual understanding,” he said, noting that while “much has been done” since the effort to re-take Mosul began a year ago, “much remains to be done.”

“The process of reconstruction (and) the return of Christians to a degree of normality in their lives should be the primary and urgent objective of our efforts,” he said. This, Cardinal Parolin added, “will allow the Christian community in new force to face up to other challenges that await them, so that they can be fully and generously engaged in working for the common good of the entire nation.”

In his speech, which was a joint statement from the patriarchs of the three Christian Churches in the region, Patriarch Sako said that in the face of the Christian genocide perpetrated by ISIS, “it is our duty” to reconstruct the houses and villages of Christians. Their presence in these areas, he said, “is as important as maintaining witnesses of Gospel values, otherwise, they will leave the country.”

In order to help Christians stay, he stressed the need for educational and political support, humanitarian assistance, the defeat of fundamentalism, and security and stabilization of the areas freed from ISIS so that those displaced by the group can return home. “Iraqi Christians need well-defined support and strong action to save them and help them return to their towns, homes and jobs,” he said, urging those in positions of authority to be “seriously open-minded.”

In many ways, Iraqi culture is still deeply “tribal,” Sako said, and as such is frequently drawn to war, violence and revenge. Going into the future, “we need to be trained to live in peace, respecting life and living in harmony together despite our religion or ethnicity,” he said. He also pushed for a swift stabilization of areas recently liberated from ISIS, saying this sense of security is “essential” in ensuring both the “rapid return” of those who have been displaced, and long-term protection.

When it comes to putting an end to terrorism in the region, the patriarch stressed that a military victory over ISIS “does not mean all of the problems have been solved.” This, he said, is because the extremist ideology continues to present “a fundamental problem and risk for us all.” “Therefore, it is urgent for all who are concerned to work together for dismantling and eradicating the extremists’ widespread ideology,” he said, explaining that this can be possible through adequate educational programs.

Patriarch Sako closed his address saying Christians in Iraq “love our land, where our root traces back to thousands of years and we want to stay and contribute in the reconstruction of our country.” “Christians also have not only problems and sufferings; they have a mission in Iraq,” he said, explaining that they want to stay faithful to Christ and understand faith as a journey “into the light that can 'point the way.'” “It is like a lamp that burns and turns into a joy, that brightens our night,” he said, and “with this faith we can overcome fears by daily prayers while we are awaiting our blessed hope.”