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As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria takes up a new military campaign—apparently to gain ground in the oil-rich Kurdish area in northern Iraq—the U.S. military reportedly will conduct an emergency airdrop to aid members of a religious minority that is being pushed up against a wall.
Such an intervention would be aimed at helping the Yazidi religious minority besieged on a northern mountainside by the Sunni extremists, according to U.S. officials quoted by The Wall Street Journal.
Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with ties to Zoroastrianism, are considered by ISIS as apostates. Their ancestral homeland is Sinjar, a district of Nineveh in northwest Iraq that ISIS took over on Sunday.
Katrina Lantos Swett said this evening that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that she chairs is "heartened that the White House is considering additional steps that the US can take to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe facing tens of thousands of Yazidis, Christians and others."
"This is both a humanitarian and a human rights crisis and we encourage our government to exercise its unique and indispensable leadership role in rallying the responsible nations to address this dire situation," Lantos Swett said in a statement emailed to Aleteia.
The Journalsaid the Islamic State is "also imperiling other parts of northern Iraq in a rapid new advance that is also threatening the long-stable city of Erbil, the seat of the Kurdish regional government."
The US State Department issued a statment this afternoon condemning the actions of the Islamic militant group, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
"The cold, calculated manner in which ISIL has targeted defenseless Iraqis, like Christians, solely because of their ethnic and religious identity, demonstrates a callous disrespect for human rights; it is nothing short of abominable," a Department spokeswoman, Pooja Jhunjhunwala, told Aleteia. "All those responsible for these abuses must be held fully accountable for their actions."
"We are working intensively with the Government of Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Kurdish Regional Government authorities in the immediate area to support their efforts to address the security threat and the challenging humanitarian situation in Ninewa, Sinjar, and elsewhere," Jhunjhunwala said. "We urge all Iraqi authorities and international partners to work with the United Nations and its partners to deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance as soon as possible. We support the work done by the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and other international and local humanitarian partners to meet the most pressing needs of affected populations in Iraq, including shelter, food and water, blankets, and basic medicine. We are in regular contact with religious leaders in northern Iraq to assess the needs of the displaced people in their care and track delivery of assistance to these communities."
Pope Francis issued an emergency statement earlier today, as did Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako. The Chaldean Church in Baghdad issued a second statemnt today calling for a quick response to the emergency.
“We…call upon all for an individual and collective action…to ask for food and material assistance from the central government and create an air bridge to deliver emergency aid, as well as contact civil society organizations and bishops conferences quickly to provide assistance,” said the statement.
The semiautonomous Kurdish region so far has been insulated from the militant takeover of parts of Iraq and a haven for the displaced from all over the country, the Journal said. But now ten
s of thousands of Christians are trying to take refuge there.
"Yesterday, I was in touch with our regional director in Beirut, who’s been in touch with folks in the north of Iraq," said Michael La Civita, communications director for Catholic Near East Welfare Association. "At that point it was clear that towns like Qaraquosh and Alquosh, which have mushroomed in size since Mosul fell, were under attack."
Though not in Kurdistan proper, those towns were being defended by the Kurdish peshmerga militia, La Civita said. But with the new ISIL push into Kurdistan, the peshmerga did not have the resources to keep defending the towns against militants who have gained resources as they’ve expanded their reach from Syria into northern Iraq.
Catholic Near East Welfare Association, an agency of the Holy See, has worked in Iraq for decades, particularly since the time of the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.
"This morning we got confirmation that [Christians] had left and are now trying to get into Erbil, capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan [and where there is a Christian quarter called Ainkawa]," La Civita said. "It is being swarmed with Christian refugees as we speak. The problem is that many who were trying to get there from Mosul were stripped of their IDs and passports. The Kurds don’t want to let in anyone who can’t prove their identity. So we have a crisis at the border, and they’re being shelled."
The result, he said, "is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. I would liken it to the genocide of the Armenians and Chaldeans and Syriac Christians during and after WW I."
Refugees fled their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs and have been walking to towns in Kurdish regions under a hot August sun, according to Patriarch Sako.
Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the Committee of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), asked U.S. bishops to invite Catholics to pray for peace in Iraq on Sunday, August 17.
Bishop Pates had sent letters on June 19 and July 24 to the National Security Advisor urging that the U.S. exert pressure on Iraq’s political leaders to form an inclusive government so that the rights of all Iraqi citizens, including Christians and other minorities, are protected.
In addition, Bishop Pates urged that the U.S. government provide humanitarian assistance to the religious refugees through trusted NGOs. The USCCB and Catholic organizations like Catholic Relief Services have been in communication with the State Department and with the U.S. Agency for International Development to discuss how humanitarian assistance might be provided, said bishops’ conference spokeswoman, Sister Mary Ann Walsh.
International Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need’s Executive President Baron Johannes Freiherr Heereman said today that the Islamic State’s siege of the Nineveh Plain requires immediate additional measures to protect Iraq’s "uniquely vulnerable minorities."
"We urge all efforts to draw an immediate red line around the Christian-Yazidi areas," Heereman said. He pointed out that ISIS is "invading lands at the border of a NATO member (Turkey) while it keeps advancing toward the Mediterranean Sea." He noted that it has "claimed the crucial town of Arsal in North Lebanon…with the risk of an ever-widening conflagration."
Of particular interest in the current crisis is the fate of children. UNICEF commented on the reported deaths of 40 children from minority groups who were displaced from Sinjar city and district.
"According to official reports received by UNICEF, these children from the Yazidi minority died as a direct consequence of violence, displacement and dehydration over the past two days,” the UN children’s agency said in a statement Tuesday. “Families who fled the area are in immediate need of urgent assistance, including up to 25,000 children who are now stranded in mountains surrounding Sinjar and are in dire need of humanitarian aid including drinking water and sanitation services.”
“UNICEF calls all those who have influence to immediately grant children and women free and safe access to areas of refuge and respect the special protection afforded to children under international humanitarian and human rights law,” the statement said.
Another international aid agency, Caritas, said its Iraq branch was continuing to provide aid to families in need, including food, health, trauma counselling and other supplies. "Caritas has reached 3,200 families so far, but the conflict is escalating," said a statement posted on the agency’s website.
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) is also urging world leaders to step up efforts to protect Iraqi Christians and other minorities who are under threat from ISIS, reported JNS.org.
Although the White House weighed potential military options, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama would stand by his pledge to not put U.S. combat troops back on the ground in Iraq.
"There are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq," he said.
is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.