LOURDES - A top Catholic cleric from Iraq says his country has "lost all confidence" despite the rout of the Islamic State group, and needs an economic and cultural "Marshall Plan".
"It's much deeper than simply giving money," Yousef Thomas Mirkis said after addressing a meeting of French bishops in the southwestern French pilgrimage town of Lourdes.
Mirkis, the Chaldean archbishop of the northern diocese of Kirkuk, said the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 had "opened a Pandora's Box, and today we see the consequences of the destabilisation of the entire region."
Iraq will long struggle with "many difficulties," said Mirkis. "We know that sectarianism has failed, American-style democracy has failed. The only thing that will succeed is a rebirth arising from the grassroots."
He said that if young people under 30, who make up some 60 percent of the population, "do not rise to the occasion, nothing can be done."
The 68-year-old cleric, who received some of his training in France, thanked the French Catholic Church for its support to hundreds of Iraqi students who fled to Kirkuk from areas that fell to IS during a sweeping 2014 offensive, especially the jihadists' Iraqi bastion Mosul.
He urged the bishops to further their support for Iraq, which has lost more than half of its Christian population in recent years. Today, they number fewer than 350,000.
"One of the world's oldest Christian communities is disappearing in Iraq before our eyes amid widespread indifference," he told them on Tuesday.
Chaldean Christians are the most numerous in Iraq. Before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 they numbered more than one million, including more than 600,000 in Baghdad.
- Emigration 'not the answer' -
The prelate said IS at its peak had many people in its thrall, even if they were "not won over to the ideology".
He added: "The media talk about the defeat of Daesh (an Arabic acronym for IS)... but there is the mentality that Daesh created."
The human, socioeconomic and political situation "must be taken into consideration," he said.
"You cannot ignore the (need for) stability in a country that has lost all confidence in the future, so there's really a lot of work to do," added Mirkis, who is also archbishop of Sulaimaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The "yes" vote in an independence referendum in September in the Kurdish region -- opposed not just by Baghdad but also Iran, Turkey and the Kurds' Western allies -- impeded the return of Christians to Mosul and nearby Qaraqosh, he said.
Mirkis said investing in students in Iraq was cheaper than providing scholarships in France, adding: "Emigration is not the answer, it's an uprooting, a loss of identity."
He added: "A Marshall Plan is much, much better than spending 2,000 euros ($2,300) to put a student through a year of university."
Mirkis said Iraqi universities "need the experience of a country like France, which also once needed to rebuild its country" -- in the aftermath of World War II.