Prospects for Christians in Middle East have seemed bleak, but Francis' envoy reports local determination
With the spread of the so-called Islamic State group throughout Syria and Iraq over the past year, things have seemed bleak for the future of Christianity in the region.
But a Vatican cardinal visiting Iraq and Jordan during Holy Week said Christian refugees are not ready to give up on their homeland.
Iraqi families all expect to be able to return "to their homes, to their villages," said Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, in an interview with L’Osservatore Romano. "It does not matter to them if they should find destruction and plundering, rebuilding does not scare them. And we are ready to help them start over."
Pope Francis sent the cardinal to Iraq to "express sympathy and solidarity with the families who live a difficult situation every day," according to Fides News Agency. The Italian prelate spent Palm Sunday in Amman, Jordan, where refugees are welcomed in parishes. He then traveled to Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north of Iraq, celebrating Easter and meeting with families who have fled the violence of the Islamic State. He met with the religious and institutional authorities involved in receiving the internally displaced persons.
"In all the villages, as well as in the camps set up in the city, I found love," said the cardinal. "People appreciated it a lot. In all the homes and parishes where I went I was told, ‘Your presence is a blessing for us.’ And all the meetings were concluded with a prayer and a blessing. Talking to them, I urged them not to lose hope, ensuring that we have not forgotten and will not forget them. I also encouraged them to look ahead."
Encouraging news also may be coming on the military front. The New York Times reported Wednesday:
The Iraqi Army and militia forces carried out an attack against the Islamic State outside the city of Ramadi on Wednesday, with some local officials claiming it was the beginning of a major offensive in western Anbar Province, though others said that was premature.
The attack came only a week after Iraqi officials declared victory over Islamic State extremists in the city of Tikrit, where fighting to wipe out pockets of resistance was continuing.
Cardinal Filoni reported that in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where thousands of IDPs have lived since last summer, homes are rented for them through Caritas, and NGOs bear the costs to accommodate two or three families in an apartment.
But some must live in schools or other buildings such as a large mall, which was still under construction when IDPs flooded into the city last summer. "The living conditions are difficult" in the unfinished complex.
Nevertheless, local communities "have opened their doors," he said. "And each community provides hospitality to these people."
The situation is dire in Erbil and other places in northern Iraq where IDPs are staying, confirmed David W. Lazar, chairman of the American Mesopotamian Organization, in a recent interview. His group is working with the Assyrian Democratic Movement in Iraq on an initiative called Restore Nineveh Now to "rally the masses, the media and Congress, to provide security for [IDPs] to return back to their homes on the Nineveh Plain, and to rebuild."
The security portion includes the establishment of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, an independent force of about 600 men. "We have thousands of volunteers, but we don’t have the resources" to train them all, he said. "We’re waiting on a decision because we want to coordinate everythign with the Allied Forces, mainly the United States and the Kurdish Regional Forces and the Iraqi military, so that our men would take positions on the front lines in the Nineveh Plain area, facing ISIS."
Restore Nineveh Now wants to establish a new province for Assyrians, and in fact, such a plan was approved by the Iraqi government in January 2014. "We want that implemented, and we want it to be part of Baghdad and not be associated with the Kurdish Regional Government," Lazar said.