Telsqof, Iraq -- The first Iraqi Catholic family returned to Iraq since the rise of ISIS in 2014. Chaldean Patriarch Mar Raphael Louis Sako has been encouraging Iraqi Chaldeans to stay in Iraq or to return in order to keep Christianity alive in Iraq. Sako remarked, "A Christian community that was born in these lands cannot organize exodus trips that will mark its extinction." The Chaldean family returned on January 30 to Telskuf, which is in the Nineveh Plain of Iraq. Sako explained, "They returned home after spending two and a half years as displaced people in a centre in Dohuk. The local priest was there to welcome them -- Fr. Salar Bodagh, who heads the reconstruction committee. This is a real sign of hope for many more." Sako revealed that the name of the man who came back is Naoiq Quliaqus Atto, along with his wife, brother and three children. In 2015, concerning defeating ISIS, Sako said, "Americans are saying it will take five years, 10 years, 30 years, and this language is encouraging ISIS, (making them think) you can stay. It's discouraging Christians or other refugees, thinking they can't go back home now." Since the rise of ISIS in 2014, there has been a mass exodus of Christians from Iraq and the greater Middle East in response to ISIS savagery and terror. In response Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III commented:
The almost communal wave of youth emigration, especially in Syria but also in Lebanon and Iraq breaks my heart, wounding me deeply and dealing me a deadly blow. Given this tsunami of emigration what future is left for the Church? What will become of our homeland? What will become of our parishes and institutions?Pleading with Christians, he pleaded with Christians, "Despite all your suffering, stay! Be patient! Don't emigrate! Stay for the Church, your homeland, for Syria and its future! Stay! Do stay!" Before the rise of ISIS persecution of Christians, the Nineveh Plain had about 130,000 Christians, but the number has been reduced to 90,000 since 2014. Although Sako and Gregorios have urged Christians to stay or return, the future looks bleak. The conflicts in Syria, Libya and Iraq have led to unprecedented displacement of Christians, and some don't see much of a future for Christians in the Middle East. Father Emanuel Youkhana with the Assyrian Church of the East commented, "I don't see a future for Christians in Mosul. Christians aren't going to come back to stay. The churches I saw were not destroyed with bombs, but by the everyday business operations of the community. How can Christians return to that environment?" In the Middle East, Christians are experiencing record levels of persecution, with ISIS engaging in acts of unprecedented cruelty and depravity. In February 2016, Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill released an official joint statement condemning the persecution of Christians all around the world, particularly in the Middle East. The statement read in part:
It is with pain that we call to mind the situation in Syria, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East, and the massive exodus of Christians from the land in which our faith was first disseminated and in which they have lived since the time of the Apostles, together with other religious communities. In the home of the Islamic State, Christians have been killed by the thousands, and millions of others have been displaced. Thousands of victims have already been claimed in the violence in Syria and Iraq, which has left many other millions without a home or means of sustenance.