When pastor Father Araam returned to his home in Mosul, Iraq after the conflict, it was barely recognisable it was so badly damaged. But he was determined to help rebuild lives – after all that's what the church does.
He is one of three Christians, persecuted for their beliefs, who will share their incredible stories at Open Doors' online event, Standing Strong Live 2021 on Saturday, September 25. The event is free but registration is required.
When Father Araam returned to Mosul after its liberation from the so-called Islamic State (IS), it was barely recognisable. The city was almost in ruins, he remembers. Homes were burned out shells, there was no water, no roads, and few signs of life.
"We lost everything in one dark night," Father Araam told the Christian anti-persecution charity Open Doors. "So, to start from the beginning is not easy.
"Everything was destroyed; my parish, which was about 70 per cent destroyed. There was no water, no classrooms, no houses, no roads."
However, he was determined to return and to help to rebuild the city with fellow believers.
"We started to return, step by step, starting with just one family."
As he saw it, they were the church; and rebuilding – lives, jobs, hope - was their job. It was not going to be easy though. There were around 1,200 Christians in Mosul prior to the conflict and takeover by IS. Almost every single one of them had fled, often to refugee camps in neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan.
It would have been easy to despair.
"In our situation it's normal for people to lose their hope," he says. "But what if you lost everything - your village, your church, your community, your childhood, your family, everything? You need to work hard to get hope back."
However, as the first Christians returned, he discovered that hope had never truly deserted many of them.
"I met some people – they were all tired. And one of the women, she was smiling. I asked her, 'Why are you smiling?' She told me, 'Before, we lost everything. But we still have our faith. So that means we still have our hope.'
"Our faith gives us hope," he adds. "Jesus said, 'I will not leave you. I will be with you, now and forever'."
"Now we have more than 190 families – but before that there were over one thousand families, so imagine how many we lost."
Father Araam quickly realised that the church needed to act. With the resources they had, they started restoring the houses and began school classes.
Through their local partners, supported by Open Doors, Father Araam's church has been able to implement some community projects. These have begun restoring or even reinventing livelihoods for people returning to the bombed, shell-pitted city.
"Our local partners, they help us a lot with livelihood issues, small businesses, we have small grants. We have money projects to hire people [on the economic side of things]. In agriculture too, as there are many people working in agriculture."
However, he understands that rebuilding lives and prosperity is not the work of a few weeks or months.
"We have understood what 'our daily bread' means, because we only have enough for this day. But step by step, I think we will recover. It takes time, it's not easy."
Father Araam will be joining Open Doors' Standing Strong conference from Iraq on Saturday.