By Elise Harris
Hours after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced a ground offensive to retake Mosul from the clutches of Islamic State, a priest working in the thick of the country’s refugee crisis said people are happy with the advances, but unsure what the future will hold.
“We are so happy because yesterday the war began between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga with ISIS,” Father Roni Momika told EWTN News Oct. 17.
He relayed how shortly before, they had received the “good news” that the ancient Monastery of the Martyrs Saint Behnam and his Sister Sarah, also known as the Mar Behnam monastery, near Nimrud “is free,” though it has suffered significant damage from Islamic State forces.
There are still many Christians living in the villages surrounding Mosul, he noted, but said soldiers from the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga are with them.
“We hope that (soon) we will hear good news about Qaraqosh, a big center for Christians, that it will be free and that there is no ISIS there,” he said, but admitted that it might not be that easy.
Fr. Momika is a Syriac Catholic priest serving in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, where he works in the city’s Aishty camp for the displaced.
He and his sister were among the victims wounded in a 2010 bombing of buses transporting mainly Christian college students from the Plains of Nineveh to the University of Mosul, where they were enrolled in classes.
In 2014, while he was in seminary, Momika and his family were forced to flee Qaraqosh, also known as Bakhdida, when Islamic State militants attacked, taking over the city after storming it in the middle of the night with bombs and gunfire.
Since his seminary was closed following Islamic State’s assault, he completed his studies in Lebanon, and returned to Iraq for his diaconate ordination, which took place March 19. On Aug. 5 he was ordained a priest in the Aishty camp, where he continues to serve the people by leading women’s groups and working with youth.
He said the people are happy the offensive has finally started and are hopeful of returning home, but cautioned that going back “is very dangerous now because we don’t know if our homes and churches have been destroyed or bombed,” or if there are mines hidden throughout their cities.
If the effort to liberate Mosul is successful, “I think it will take some time” to go back, the priest said, explaining that if they see that the situation is safe “we will go,” but if they see that things aren’t safe, they will have to stay until things are more stable.
Fr. Momika spoke to EWTN News shortly after Al-Abadi announced the start of the highly-anticipated offensive to retake Mosul, which has been months in the making, in the early hours of Monday morning. Mosul has been under the control of the Islamic State since June 2014.
According to the Guardian, in a televised address Al-Abadi told Iraqi citizens that “we have been battling ISIS for more than two years. We started fighting ISIS in the outskirts of Baghdad, and thank God we are now fighting them in the outskirts of Mosul, and God willing the decisive battle will be soon.”
“These forces that are liberating you today, they have one goal in Mosul which is to get rid of Daesh (ISIS) and to secure your dignity. They are there for your sake,” he said.
In addition to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, U.S. troops, British and French Special Forces, and a number of Turkish soldiers are supporting the Iraqi army in the battle, which is expected to take between several weeks to several months to complete, the Guardian reports. Many of the Iraqi troops are based in Qarrayah, a town 45 miles south of Mosul which was recaptured in August.
Mosul is the last major stronghold the Islamic State has in Iraq. They have been steadily retreating since the end of last year in battles against Iraqi and Peshmerga forces, as well as airstrikes from the U.S-led coalition.
For several days Mosul has been surrounded by some 30,000 ground troops who were prepping for the initial attack.
As a warning to the roughly 600,000 residents left in Mosul, a city of 2 million before Islamic State’s 2014 assault, the Iraqi government Sunday dropped thousands of leaflets throughout the city warning civilians to avoid certain parts of the city, and cautioned them not to listen to rumors spread by the Islamist militants that could cause panic.
The Guardian reports that Islamic State is estimated to have nearly 6,000 fighters ready to defend Mosul.
Rueters News reports that the Mosul offensive is the one of Iraq’s largest military operations since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Should the battle for Mosul be successful, Islamic State’s last main stronghold will be Raqqa in Syria.
However, given the number of civilians left in Mosul and the ease with which Islamic State militants commit human atrocities, several organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N., have said they are bracing for a severe humanitarian crisis in which up to 1 million people could be left homeless, displaced, or used as human shields.
According to Rueters, there are already more than 3 million people who have displaced inside Iraq due to conflicts with the Islamic State.
In his comments to CNA, Fr. Momika said while the people are hopeful that the battle will be successful, they know that their homes and cities will not be in the same state when the fled two years ago, and are prepared to start again from zero.
“If all is bombed, as it is now in Qaraqosh, they will have destroyed everything,” he said, “They will have destroyed our homes, the churches, schools, pharmacies, hospitals.”
With nothing left, the priest said they will need many things, including money, to rebuild, and that “our youth, they will build and do everything.”
“Please pray for us,” he asked, explaining that there are still Christians in Iraq who want to stay.