With the blessing of the cross raised up in the city of Bakhdida May 2, the reconstruction of the towns in the Plain of Nineveh in Iraq destroyed by the Islamic State officially began.

Syrian Catholic Archbishop Youhanna Boutros Moshe of Mosul blessed the cross on a joyous morning with emotive dances by Christians. There are 13,000 damaged houses – 669 of which were completely destroyed by the Islamists – which will be rebuilt in three towns on the Plain of Nineveh: Bartella, Karemlesh, and Bakhdida.

The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which is collaborating on the reconstruction, estimated the total cost of the program to be in excess of $250 million.

To date ACN has provided around $500,000 to the Nineveh Reconstruction Commission.

Work has already begun on the rebuilding of 100 Christian homes in the communities, and during a May 8 ceremony the owners of each of the homes were given olive trees to be planted as symbols of peace and reconciliation.

Speaking to CNA Fr. Luis Montes, a missionary priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word In Iraq, said that "Christians are very hopeful with the beginning of the reconstruction of the cities of the Plain of Nineveh."

"Most of those who have remained in Iraq – some estimate that they are half of those that originally fled from ISIS more than two years ago, the other half have probably already left the country – want to stay and return to their cities," he said.

However, he pointed out, "you can't say the drama is over for several reasons, including the fact that the community has been greatly reduced and that is cause for sadness and for greater weakness both now and especially for the future."

"In addition recovering all the territories that ISIS has taken doesn't mean defeating them, because they will continue on as a clandestine group with attacks, just like the other terrorist groups," he pointed out.

According to the research firm RAND, the Islamic State has lost about 60 percent of the territory it controlled at the height of its power in late 2014.

The largest offensive against the Islamist group conducted since in October 2016 by combined groups of the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, recovered villages in the Plain of Nineveh. Currently, the combined groups are fighting for control of Mosul.

Fr. Montes noted that "Iraq has had dozens of attacks a month for more than ten years and that will continue. And you mustn't forget that once the battle for Mosul is over tensions between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan autonomous region will sharply pick up again."

"Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that this reconstruction process and the soon return of Christians to their homes isn't big news. Very big news! But we must keep praying because it's still a very long road," he urged.

Fr.  Andrzej Halemba, head of ACN's Near East division, said that with the start of reconstruction work in Bartella, Karemlesh, and Bakhdida, "we want to send a clear signal to the thousands of Christian families driven from their homes in the Plain of Nineveh who now are living in an improvised and provisional way in Erbil, and other localities in Iraqi Kurdistan."

"This is a decidedly historic moment. If we now miss the opportunity to help Christians return to their homes in the Plain of Nineveh, these families could make the decision to leave Iraq forever, and this would be a huge tragedy."

For Fr. Halemba "the presence of Christians in this region is of vital importance, but not just from the historical point of view, but also from the political and cultural stance," since "Christians represent a bridge of peace between the different Muslim groups at odds with each other; they make a crucial contribution to the education system and are respected by all the moderate Muslims."

The priest appealed for both financial aid and prayers for the Christians in Iraq.

"From all our brothers and sisters in the West we are not just asking for financial aid, but also prayers with which to support the courage of thousands of Iraqi Christians who have made the decision to return to their towns and remain in Iraq."

By the end of June 2017 ACN, which says it is the only international organization to consistently support the Christian exiles from the Nineveh plain since its capture by the Islamic State, will have spent more than $35 million in supporting the 12,000 Christian internally displaced persons in Kurdistan. Assistance has come in the form of monthly food aid, money for rent, medical help, the construction of schools, and the support of displaced clergy and women religious.