Kirkuk archbishop urges ‘Marshall Plan’ for Iraq

Iraqi forces at their camp on the front line in the northwestern town of Fishkhabur, near the borders with Syria and Turkey, on Oct. 28. (AFP)
Updated 09 November 2017
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Kirkuk archbishop urges ‘Marshall Plan’ for Iraq

LOURDES, France: A top Catholic cleric from Iraq said his country has “lost all confidence” despite the rout of Daesh, and needs an economic and cultural “Marshall Plan.”
“It’s much deeper than simply giving money,” Yousef Thomas Mirkis told AFP after addressing a meeting of French bishops in the southwestern French pilgrimage town of Lourdes.
Mirkis, the Chaldean archbishop of the northern diocese of Kirkuk, said the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 had “opened a Pandora’s box, and today we see the consequences of the destabilization of the entire region.”
Iraq will long struggle with “many difficulties,” said Mirkis. “We know that sectarianism has failed, American-style democracy has failed. The only thing that will succeed is a rebirth arising from the grassroots.”
He said that if young people under 30, who make up some 60 percent of the population, “do not rise to the occasion, nothing can be done.”
The 68-year-old cleric, who received some of his training in France, thanked the French Catholic Church in a speech on Tuesday for its support to hundreds of Iraqi students who fled to Kirkuk from areas that fell to Daesh during a sweeping 2014 offensive, especially the militants’ Iraqi bastion Mosul.
He urged the bishops to further their support for Iraq, saying: “One could think of a new Marshall Plan. The survival of our communities depends at least in part on economics, which demands a comprehensive approach in the short, medium and long term.”
Mirkis noted that Iraq has lost more than half of its Christian population in recent years. Today, they number fewer than 350,000.
“One of the world’s oldest Christian communities is disappearing in Iraq before our eyes amid widespread indifference,” he said.
Chaldean Christians are the most numerous in Iraq. Before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, they numbered more than 1 million, including more than 600,000 in Baghdad.
The prelate said Daesh at its peak had many people in its thrall, even if they were “not won over to the ideology.”
He added: “The media talk about the defeat of Daesh (an Arabic acronym for IS)... but there is the mentality that Daesh created.”
The human, socioeconomic and political situation “must be taken into consideration,” he said.
“You cannot ignore the (need for) stability in a country that has lost all confidence in the future, so there’s really a lot of work to do,” added Mirkis, who is also archbishop of Sulaimaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The “yes” vote in an independence referendum in September in the Kurdish region — opposed not just by Baghdad but also Iran, Turkey and the Kurds’ Western allies — impeded the return of Christians to Mosul and nearby Qaraqosh, he said.
Mirkis said investing in students in Iraq was cheaper than providing scholarships in France, adding: “Emigration is not the answer, it’s an uprooting, a loss of identity.”
He added: “A Marshall Plan is much, much better than spending €2,000 ($2,300) to put a student through a year of university.”
Mirkis said Iraqi universities “need the experience of a country like France, which also once needed to rebuild its country” — in the aftermath of World War II.


Gutted Syrian town begins modest reconstruction, street by street

Updated 19 July 2018
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Gutted Syrian town begins modest reconstruction, street by street

  • Mountains of rubble still block many of the main thoroughfares in Harasta, a town outside Damascus
  • After a blistering weeks-long assault, Syria’s government recaptured it in March

HARASTA, Syria: Khaled’s delicate hands were accustomed to cutting and styling hair in his Syrian hometown Harasta. Now, they’re hauling concrete and sweeping floors to repair homes ravaged by years of fighting.
Mountains of rubble still block many of the main thoroughfares in Harasta, a town outside Damascus held for nearly five years by armed rebels.
After a blistering weeks-long assault, Syria’s government recaptured it in March, and displaced families have been trickling back to check if their homes survived.
Khaled, 35, watches them cross a security checkpoint and approaches to pitch his services: knocking down walls, clearing rubble, and sweeping up debris.
“I used to be a barber, but now I’m a laborer. I wait for families to enter and offer them my services in cleaning and restoration,” he says.
Khaled fled Harasta in 2012 to the nearby town of Al-Tal, where he still lives with his family. Every day, the father of three commutes to Harasta to find work.
His own house still stands, but he cannot return yet: temporary security measures dictate that people who live outside the town cannot stay past nightfall.
“I work with three other people. We use hammers, brooms, and buckets of water. Work is on and off,” he says.
“Clients pay us whatever they can afford.”
Harasta lies in Eastern Ghouta, recaptured this spring by Syrian troops with a deal that saw thousands of rebels and civilians bussed to opposition territory elsewhere.
Others, like 45-year-old Hassan, chose not to leave.
The former petrol station worker remained in Harasta throughout the rebel reign and decided to stay in its aftermath, too.
Hassan now works with Khaled, transporting rocks and other materials in his pick-up truck to construction sites.
“This is the only work in Harasta that pays right now,” says Hassan, wearing a dirty wool sweater despite the heat.
Harasta was once home to 250,000 people, most of them Syrians from elsewhere in the country who worked in the capital but sought cheap rent.
Now, just 15,000 people remain, town officials estimate, unable to leave until security forces clear their names.
With the use of personal cars banned, boys get around on bicycles while women and toddlers shuffle along on foot.
Many of Harasta’s large residential blocks or industrial complexes have been pulverized by strikes, artillery, and mortars.
They stand like massive grey honeycombs overlooking dusty streets still stripped of signs of life, months after fighting has stopped.
Mohammad Naaman, 50, was terrified his home would be among those gutted by fighting — and can hardly contain himself when he finds it still standing.
“I was shocked to see most buildings collapsed. It’s true my house is devastated compared to before, but I’m happy it’s still there at all,” says Naaman.
He, too, fled to Al-Tal in 2012 and still lives there.
The doors and windows of his Harasta home have been blown out and cracks run up the walls, threatening collapse.
But in the living room, a layer of dust blankets plastic flowers still standing in their vases.
“Whatever happens, it’s still my house, and my house is so dear to me,” Naaman says.
Like his neighbors, Naaman’s first step was removing the rubble and debris from his home, dumping them into the main street nearby according to instructions by local authorities.
Vehicles provided by the public works ministry transport the rubble to a local dump, separating metal out so that concrete can be turned back to cement and reused.
“We removed 110,000 cubic meters of rubble from the streets, but there’s still more than 600,000 to go,” says Adnan Wezze, who heads the town council running Harasta since the regime’s recapture.
As he speaks, a demolition digger works on a two-story building. Its metal arm reaches up to the roof and picks off slabs of concrete precariously perched there.
Authorities are working fast to demolish buildings “at risk of collapse, because they present a public safety threat,” says Wezze.
Many urban hubs across Syria, particularly around Damascus, have been hard-hit by hostilities, and President Bashar Assad said this month rebuilding would be his “top priority.”
But Law 10, a recent decree which allows for the expropriation of property to redevelop an area, sparked fears that millions of displaced Syrians would not get the opportunity to make a claim to their land.
Wezze insists that Harasta’s modest efforts were fair.
“We only demolish after getting permission from the owners,” he says.
If they are not present, Wezze adds, “their rights are still protected. We’ve requested proof of property even before areas are designated as development projects.”
“No resident of Harasta will lose his rights — whether they’re here or in exile.”