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 CNA 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
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
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 CNA 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
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
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
“Please pray for us,” he asked, explaining that there are still Christians in Iraq who want to stay.