Volunteers come together to clean up church in Tel Kayf

In the Iraqi town of Tel Kayf, located eight kilometres north of Mosul, volunteers from neighbouring communities have come together to rebuild the town’s church after its destruction by ISIS militants.

The town was captured by ISIS in August 2014, as part of the group’s surge across large swaths of northern Iraq, which included capturing Iraq’s second biggest city Mosul.

As a predominately Assyrian Christian town, many of Tel Kayf’s inhabitants along with their religious buildings and edifices were largely considered anathema to the group’s strict ideology. The scale of the damage inflicted by ISIS is still visible today, with houses destroyed, and crosses and religious symbols ripped from walls and churches.

Following the town’s liberation in mid-January 2017, shortly before the end of the first phase to the “We Are Coming, Oh Nineveh” operations, residents have slowly begun returning to their homes, although wary of what the future holds and the scale of reconstruction.

In light of this, a group of young Iraqi Muslim volunteers have come together to help restore the town to its former glory and help facilitate the return of residents to their homes. This includes removing debris from houses, and cleaning up and returning crosses to the town’s church.

The young volunteers have cast aside any notion of religious difference, believing their common understanding of humanity and shared sense of Iraqi identity are more important than whether they are Muslim or Christian, and they implore those who are yet to return to come back to their homes.

“There is no difference between Christians and Muslims. We began this [campaign] so that we could kindly ask our families and loved ones who are Christians to come back to their homeland,” said one volunteer. “Your houses of worship are back by God’s will. We did what we can. As for yourselves, please come back. Mosul can gather us all together.”

The everyday acts of Iraqis like these are helping to restitch the fabric of society, especially in pluralistic areas of northern Iraq like Tel Kayf and the surrounding Nineveh Plains, where Yazidis, Christians, and Shabaks among others have all lived together for centuries. Many of these communities were targeted by ISIS for their perceived heretical ideologies, with the group carrying out violent attacks against them.

But cross ethno-religious initiatives and actions like these further help to counter ISIS’ attempts to destroyed and fragment Iraq’s diverse societies. This has formed part of a wider civil society push by Iraqis, both young and old, to rehabilitate towns and bring local communities back together again