Assessing situation in Irbil, where tens of thousands of refugees wonder about their future.
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