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Nearly 3,000 Iraqi Christian families have been repatriated since liberation of Nineveh, says local official

(Reuters/Marko Djurica)A priest leads the Easter Mass in Mar Gewargis (St George) Chaldean Catholic church, which was damaged by Islamic State militants, in the town of Tel Esqof, Iraq, April 16, 2017.

Nearly 3,000 Christian families have been repatriated since Iraqi forces liberated Nineveh from the Islamic State terror group, according to a local official.

In late August, the Iraqi government announced the recapture of Tel Afar, which was the last stronghold of the militants in the province. Since that time, the regions of Hamadaniyah and Tel Saqf have seen the highest number of repatriated Christian families, according to Dureid Hekmat, Nineveh governor's advisor for Christian affairs.

The official said that Christians have returned at a slower rate in other regions like Bashiqa and Bartella. In Eastern Mosul, 500 families have returned to their homes, and more are expected to arrive if basic services are restored faster, Hekmat said.

Iraqi News reported that nearly 3 million people have been displaced from their homes since 2014, when ISIS declared a self-styled Islamic "caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

The Iraqi government has declared its intentions to repatriate more than one million people who were displaced by anti-ISIS operations in Mosul before the end of the year. The government has expressed plans to launch operations aimed at other ISIS havens in Kirkuk, Anbar and Salahuddin.

Last month, the Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement reported that 17,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have returned to their homes in the Nineveh Plains in the towns of Hamadaniyah, Bartella, Bashiqa, and Nimrod.

Nineveh Plains, which was liberated in late 2016, includes towns inhabited by Kurdish Shabaks and Yezidis (Ezidis) with a Christian majority.

The ministry noted that the number of returnees in the region was "very few" compared to other parts of Nineveh, but added that it was a "good start."

Archbishop Rabban al-Qasr had previously stated that Christians might not return to their homes even after the Nineveh Plains is liberated from ISIS.

He pointed to the violence and crimes they experienced at the hands of Sunni Arabs, many of whom aided and collaborated with ISIS, adding that the displaced Christians would prefer to stay in the Kurdistan Region.

Khalid Jamal Albert, the General Director of Christian Affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, said that Kurdistan is home to more than 300,000 Christians.

"When IS came, many fled their homes and headed to the Kurdistan Region, or to Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon in hopes of receiving asylum in the West," he said, noting that many have found refuge in the region among its already robust Chaldean Christian community.

"Many who fled to Kurdistan remain. There have also been 51 families who had fled to Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon but returned to the Kurdistan Region," he said.

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