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Churches in the West Trying to Throw Lifeline to Iraqi and Syrian Christians

Jeffrey Bruno

John Burger - published on 08/16/15

Hope is rare in an increasingly desperate situation, but it still exists

Sister Diana Momeka encounters stories like this on a daily basis. A mother came to her the other day, desperate for answers. She couldn’t get her four-year-old son to eat. He couldn’t sleep at night. His bones ached constantly. And the medicine he was taking was no help.

In ways, the boy is a metaphor for the larger Christian community in Iraq—100,000-plus souls still wondering what will happen to them, more than a year after an Islamist movement forced them from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. Once industrious, hard-working, proud homeowners, the sons and daughters of a millennia-old Christian tradition scrape by, living in trailer-like facilities or unfinished buildings in the Kurdish capital of northern Iraq. The temporary housing, set up in sprawling camps around Erbil, let in no sunlight and can be roasting in the summer and frigid in winter. The internally displaced persons have very little privacy and often get little sleep.

With a spike in childhood illnesses last year, Sister Diana was inspired to seek the aid of a local priest, and both of them recruited doctors and nurses. They eventually established clinics that could make at least a dent in a growing public health problem. 

Meanwhile, almost 400 miles to the west, the Greek Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, Syria, returned from a visit to the United States to find a flock still shaking in fear. Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart’s once proud city lay largely in ruins, and clashes between the Islamic State group, the al-Nusra Front, other rebel groups and the military of Bashar al-Assad’s regime hover perilously close. In fact, the archbishop said in an interview Friday, the Christian neighborhood had suffered a bombing just two days before his return, leaving seven people dead.

Four years after the outbreak of civil war, with no real hope of a solution, a plan Archbishop Jeanbart proposes seems almost ludicrous. He calls it "Build to Stay," and he expects that it will provide enough motivation to keep distraught Syrian Christians from emigrating. It is, he says, a "movement that has the goal to gather together a great number of faithful who are convinced of the importance of our presence in this country."

Groups like the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Aid to the Church in Need, side with people like Archbishop Jeanbart, as hopeless as the situation may appear. The Knights’ Christian Refugee Relief Fund has delivered more than $3 million in humanitarian aid to persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and has kicked off a public education campaign about the crisis. Assistance from the Knights of Columbus has included permanent housing for those who have had to flee their homes, as well as support for medical facilities in areas flooded with Christians and other refugees.

“We have seen people killed, slaughtered, women violated, priests and bishops kidnapped, houses destroyed, churches and convents invaded,” said Archbishop Jeanbart at the Knights’ convention in Philadelphia earlier this month. “But we persist with the help of God and with the help of those who help us, like the Knights of Columbus.”

"I have just begun to work with the Knights, and we have good reasons to think that they will be helpful in our main project, Build to Stay, which will be significant in the support of the Christians willing to continue the presence of the Church in Syria," the archbishop told Aleteia. The Catholic men’s fraternal organization has provided the Eparchy of Aleppo $350,000. 

Catholic Near East Welfare Association, an agency of the Holy See founded in 1926, has disbursed more than $7.2 million to assist displaced Iraqis and Syrians. The funds have enabled CNEWA’s on-the-ground partners, the local churches, to respond to needs, including food staples, medical supplies, and bedding. The aid has also helped set up and equip clinics, such as Sister Diana’s, and provide counseling and tutoring.

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Tags:
Christians in the Middle EastIraqIslamic MilitantsKnights of ColumbusSyria
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