A church leader working at a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan has shared how he strives to spread hope among the displaced Christian community, many of whom are traumatized by their experiences in their home country.
Father Thabet works at Karamles camp - a temporary housing project in Erbil home to hundreds of families from the Christian village of Karamles, who fled their village when the ISIS overran it in 2014 and issued an ultimatum: Convert, pay a tax, or die.
"One third of the Christians from my village have left the country - that's a lot," he told the outlet. "On a positive note, that means two-thirds are still here, that's the majority."
He added, "Many of them are willing to stay in Iraq; they just need enough hope. That's where I come in. My job is to inspire and mobilize people, to help them rebuild their trust in their neighbors and their position in society."
He told persecution watchdog Open Doors that every day, he walks around the camp talking to people, encouraging them to help one another. He keeps a small cardboard box on his desk bearing the phrase "Coin of the widow" written on it in three languages, a reference to the New Testament story about the widow's offering (Mark 12:42-43).
"I ask my people to put something in this box," he said. "Even if it is just a small coin, whatever they can spare to help people who even poorer than they. Even when you have almost nothing to spend, still you can help others. That is how we keep the hope alive; that is how we spread the hope."
As earlier reported, Father Thabet was among a group of people who visited Karamles last week after it was liberated by Kurdish security forces. At the time, he discovered his church had been heavily damaged by ISIS, and its cross thrown to the ground. Undeterred, the priest climbed Barbara Hill, next to his village, and planted a large cross, covered in flowers, firmly in the ground overlooking his hometown.
"I am so happy I can do this. I'm smiling from cheek to cheek and I weep tears of joy at the same time. This is the trip I have been praying for, for two years now," he said, according to World Watch Monitor.
"My dream is to bring all the Christians back to this village. Then we will worship outside on Barbara Hill; we will have the Eucharist in the open air. Everybody will see that this is the Church; this is the Body of Christ; this is Christian land. That is my dream - to give a testimony to the world," he said.
Over the past three weeks, Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi army forces have retaken a number of villages from ISIS; however, Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government's Security Council, told Reuters that even if ISIS is driven out of its main stronghold Mosul, Iraq's largest Christian city, that will not be enough to eliminate the group, and its radical ideology will survive.
"The fight against ISIS is going to be a long fight," Barzani told Reuters in an interview. "Not only militarily but also economically, ideologically."
He also said Iraqi forces have faced the hardest fighting of the offensive as they entered Mosul: "As they are getting more desperate, expectations are that they might fight more fiercely as you close in," said Barzani.