Both in the United States and the Middle East, Christian and humanitarian aid groups are doing what they can to assist refugees fleeing Islamist militants in Iraq.
Baron Johannes Freiherr Heereman von Zuydtwyck, executive president of Aid to the Church in Need, is leading a delegation to the Kurdish city of Irbil in northern Iraq, where tens of thousands of Christians from Mosul and villages in the Nineveh Plain were taking refuge.
“We are here to show our solidarity,” said Regina Lynch, head of Aid to the Church in Need’s programming/grant-making department, in a telephone call from Irbil. “People are sleeping anywhere they can—in parks, churches, on the streets.…Some are staying with relatives. Churches are helping to feed people, helping them cook.”
The bulk of the Christian refugees are making their way to Kurdish territory, where Church communities have a measure of safety. But an already overburdened local Church infrastructure will make life difficult for newcomers in Kurdistan, while the existing Kurdistan Christian community of some 100,000 fears ISIS forces may also attack that territory.
The al-Qaida breakaway group has seized broad swaths of territory straddling the Iraqi-Syria border as it expands the Islamic state, or Caliphate, it has established there, imposing its harsh interpretation of Islamic law on the region’s inhabitants. Last week, Islamic State fighters captured the country’s largest hydroelectric dam and surrounding areas, including Makhmour, causing the exodus of tens of thousands of Iraqis, among them Christians and Yazidis, an ancient minority sect.
The emboldened militants also tried to seize the Kurdish city of Irbil, attacking a checkpoint 20 miles from the regional capital, according to the Associated Press. They were pushed back by U.S. airstrikes.
Lynch said the small delegation from Aid to the Church in Need was finding that feelings were mixed among refugees about what the future mgiht hold for them. Some are hoping to go back to teir villages in the Nineveh Plain where their families have lived for generations, but even if ISIS is pushed back, there need to be assurances that this won’t happen again, Lynch said.
Aid to the Church in Need-USA (ACNUSA) has launched a campaign to provide humanitarian aid to the beleagured Christian community. It already has made two grants, $135,000 for emergency aid for Iraq’s Christian refugees and $186,000 in support of the Christian community in Syria.
There, continued fighting between the regime and the opposition, the devastation caused by the civil war to date, and targeted attacks are causing enormous suffering to local Christians.
“Both countries are threatened with the extinction of ancient Christian communities,” said George Marlin, Chairman of the Board of ACNUSA. “Both Churches and governments in the West must do their utmost to prevent what has become a tragedy of historic proportions,” he added.
Marlin said that water, food, emergency supplies and medicine “are the first order of the day,” but in the long term a lasting solution must be found that guarantees Christians’ safe haven in both Syria and Iraq.
In the wake of Sunni-Shiite clashes in Iraq and the rise in Islamic extremism, the Iraqi Christian population has dwindled to some 150,000 from a high of more than a million. The Syrian conflict has sparked the exodus of almost a third of the country’s Christian population of 1.8 million, the majority of whom are currently stranded in Lebanon. In addition, at least several hundred thousand Christians are displaced within Syria itself.
ISIS forces—which overran Iraq’s largest city of Mosul in early June—have also taken control of the town of Qaraqosh and surrounding villages, the country’s largest Christian enclave. Its 100,000 residents fled “with nothing but the clothes on their backs,” reported Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad, who spoke in terms of “an exodus, a real
via crucis.” The fate of Mosul’s Christian community—who were given a choice by ISIS to convert, pay a tax levied on non-Muslims, simply leave or die—left these latest refugees with no illusions. Only a handful of Christians remain in Mosul; most of the community has fled, robbed of their homes, all their possessions and their identity papers.
In Syria, ACNUSA will be supporting the Archdiocese of Homs, Hama and Yabroud and provide emergency relief for families in the country’s famous “Valley of the Christians,” which has seen some of the most intense fighting of the Syrian civil war.
“Not only is the rich Christian patrimony of these countries at stake,” said Marlin; “Christians play a vital role in Muslim societies as a moderating force, playing an indispensable role in mediating between warring factions and maintaining relations with the international community.”
The commitment of the Christians in the Middle East to “education and democratic values across the board” makes them peace-builders, he said—and that is a “vital interest for the
ACNUSA has pledged—and hopes to raise—$1 million to the persecuted and suffering Church in the region.
Other Catholic organizations operating in the United States are working to respond to the dire needs of Christians in Iraq at this time. The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal agency providing humanitarian and pastoral support for Christians all over the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Northeast Africa and India, have offices in Jerusalem, Beirut, Lebanon and Amman, Jordan that work in Iraq and Syria with local dioceses and bishops and religious to provide humanitarian relief and ongoing support. CNEWA has launched an emergency aid appeal to help provide for the basic needs of refugees and to support priests and religious on the ground.
The Knights of Columbus has established a matching fund to assist Christians and other religious minorities facing severe persecution or displacement in Iraq and nearby countries.
“The unprovoked and systematic persecution and violent elimination of Middle East Christians, as well as other minority groups, especially in Iraq, has created an enormous humanitarian crisis,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said Aug. 12. In addition to an initial pledge of $500,000, the Catholic fraternal organization will match another $500,000 in donations from the public.
The relief agency of the Sovereign Order of Malta, Malteser International, announced a pledge of $500,000 to match gifts from U.S. donors dollar for dollar.
“Helping the sick, the wounded, and those fleeing persecution in the Middle East was the Order’s original mission 900 years ago, so the current plight of Iraqi Christians and minorities has moved us deeply,” says Ravi Tripptrap, Malteser International Americas’ executive director. “We are doing everything in our power to bring immediate relief to those in need and ensure their survival.”
A Malteser International response team arrived yesterday in Erbil, north Iraq, in order to prepare relief efforts for the displaced minorities. The emergency relief team on the ground is preparing the distribution of survival kits and emergency medical relief for the next three months, which will benefit displaced Christians and Yazidi communities that have fled from the ISIS’s violent attacks and death threats.
For over a decade, Malteser International has supported a health care center in Karamlesh, in the Nineveh region, in cooperation with its Iraqi partners and the local Chaldean Catholic Church. On Aug. 6, ISIS took control of the town, and the center was forced to suspend its activities.
In addition, Catholics and others are praying and rallying to support Iraqi Christians. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. has invited all 219 parishes in the five-county Archdiocese of Philadelphia to participate in a Day of Prayer for Iraq on Sunday, August 17.
This initiative is part of a national effort being led by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). It follows the call of Pope Francis for the Universal Church to join in prayerful solidarity for an immediate to the violence and destruction in Iraq along with the merciless persecution being directed at Christians.
Next Sunday, a Holy Hour will take place in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia to pray especially for the intention of peace in Iraq.
The American Middle East Christians congress (AMECC) hosted a conference of unity on Friday, August 1, 2014 for all American Middle East church denominations and their representatives, who agreed to form an American Middle East Council of Churches and public relations committee, build bridges with other states’ Middle Eastern churches, and assist Middle East Christians in their plight.
The organization held an inter-religious Candelight Vigil Thursday at Shain Park in Birmingham, Mich. The area is home to many Christian Iraqis who have immigrated over the years. Among them is Ramsay F. Dass, MD, president of the
American Middle East Christians Congress. Born on a British military base in Iraq to a British father and an Iraqi Christian mother, he commented on the developments of the past couple of months: “Mosul, the birthplace of my mother [and home to a Christian people] for 2000 years is gone.”
“We’re asking our fellow Americans to start fighting back with us,” he said.
He said he has heard words of support for the Christians of Iraq from people of various religious and ethnic groups, including Musims. But he regrets that he has heard too little from one American in particular.
“President Obama is talking about the Yazidis, talking about the Kurds. Fine," said Dass. "But he has said hardly anything about the Christians. He has been avoiding us.”
For more information:
Aid to the Church in Need
Knights of Columbus
K of C Christian Refugee Relief, Knights of Columbus Charities, P.O. Box 1966, New Haven, CT 06509-1966.
Those who wish to support the relief efforts with a donation can do so via Malteser International’sPaypal donation page, or by sending checks or money orders to: Malteser International Americas, 75 Valencia Ave., Suite 702, Coral Gables, FL 33134, including the reference “Iraq/Middle East relief.”