At their annual Knights of Columbus convention in St. Louis, Mo., this week, Knights CEO Carl Anderson announced the group’s plans to immediately work to rebuild the town of Karamdes on the Nineveh Plain of Iraq. The town was once an ISIS stronghold, and now the Knights are partnering with the Archdiocese of Erbil in Kurdistan to help displaced Christians re-settle in their former home.
The cost estimate for this effort is $2,000 per family. The Knights have pledged $2 million toward the effort and are encouraging their members’ councils, parishes, and individuals — anyone who feels called to contribute to the cause — to join the effort. In full disclosure, I made a contribution to the effort this week, believing that it’s money I’ll never regret having spent in such a way!
Andrew Walther, vice president for communications and strategic planning at the Knights of Columbus, has visited Iraq twice since the Knights launched its Christian Refugee Relief Fund in 2014. He talks about the new focus on Karamdes (sometimes spelled Karemlash) in an interview with National Review Online.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How did you identify this particular town, and what is its story?
Most of the people from Karamdes are still in Iraq; they’re in Erbil living as refugees. This town was of a similar size to Teleskov, the town that the Hungarian government restored for the cost of about $2,000 a family, so based on that model and the urgency of the situation we decided to save Karamdes.
Lopez: Why does Hungary care about Iraq? How did the Hungarian government get involved in this in the first place?
Walther: A lot of countries do foreign assistance, and certainly Hungary is one of them. The Archdiocese of Erbil has received foreign assistance from some European governments, including Hungary, which has a consulate in Erbil. It saw this situation as a problem their country was interested in trying to fix.
Lopez: You said this could be a tipping point if there isn’t enough momentum for Christians to move back home. Why is it so important that Christians be in Iraq in the first place?
Walther: As I understand it, there are two things going on that make this situation so time sensitive. First, ISIS has largely been defeated in Iraq. The battle for Mosul is over, the Nineveh Plain has been liberated, and ISIS as a coherent military force is no longer holding the region it once occupied. At the same time, you have the impending start of the school year, so you have parents trying to decide where they’re going to put their children in school for the next year.
Those two things together have left these refugees in a situation where they want clarity on what is going to happen next. And after three years in a refugee camp or living in some sort of temporary housing, that is not a solution that many of these people are willing to put up with any longer. Especially now that their towns have been liberated, they either want to go home or give up on the prospect of going home, and that is really only natural at this point – after three years of living as refugees.
Lopez: And is living in Erbil an option for them?
Walther: I’ve been told that some displaced Christians may ultimately continue to live in Erbil, which does already have a sizeable Christian population in its Ankawa suburb. However, most of the Christians that fled to Kurdistan ultimately want go home – especially now that their hometowns are liberated.
Lopez: In announcing the initiative, Carl Anderson talked about $2,000 per family — you’re basing that on the Hungary model? What does that actually look like? How are you moving them back?
Walther: There are several hundred families that would move back to this town very quickly. In general, it costs about $2,000 for a moderately damaged home to be repaired and for the family to move back in. The reason the cost is so low is that the families typically do most of the work themselves. The Catholic Church helps them with the financing for the supplies and engineers, who can review what they plan to do, sign off on the plan and the cost, and then sign off on the work once it’s done.
The Church is providing the engineers for this review process, the Church is providing the funding to buy the supplies to rebuild the houses at the depots. So a moderately damaged house — which is the majority of the houses in this town — can be fixed for about $2,000 and the families moved back. The other houses that are completely demolished will take more time, and that will be another phase. Money will also be used for rebuilding churches and other aspects of the town beyond just the houses. But basically, the cost of moving a family back is about $2,000.
Lopez: For most of these people, wouldn’t it be much better to settle somewhere else? Why would they go back home, and why do we want them to go back home? Why should we care as Christians or Americans?
Walther: I think there are several things to keep in mind. First, everyone has a soft spot in their heart for home. Nobody likes to be told, “Well, you just can’t live here anymore.” Nineveh has been Christian for almost 2,000 years. It’s a region where generations of these families have lived. It’s a region that had a sizeable Christian population prior to the ISIS invasion.
Second, it’s very important for the future of Christianity in Iraq and in the region — and pluralism in Iraq, for that matter — that the kind of ethnic and religious mix that existed in this part of the country prior to ISIS continues. If Nineveh were to cease to have any kind of religious-minority presence, particularly Christian, ISIS’s program of eliminating minorities, its de-Christianization program of religious cleansing and genocide, would ultimately be proven successful.
Lopez: Is there anything additional that the U.S. can do to ensure that the next ISIS doesn’t come back and force Christians to flee again?
Walther: This is not the first persecution that these Christians have faced in the last century and a half. There have been many, most notably the genocide of World War I, which continued through 1922, and then episodically there were pogroms against Christians with alarming regularity. At the same time, it is certainly in the best interests of both the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan regional government to keep these populations safe, especially given those governments’ enormous dependence on the United States.
This latest genocide certainly created a huge international outcry. I think it’s important for people to understand that these persecuted minority communities need stability and the ability to return home. They need real guarantees of security and equal rights because, as many human-rights and genocide scholars have pointed out, the genocide perpetrated by ISIS germinated in a situation where Christians were already second-class citizens. This has been called the forerunner to the genocide, even an incubator for the genocide. That second-class citizenship must end.
Lopez: About this town in particular that you’re helping, is it true that there were 14 people who didn’t make it out before ISIS got there?
Walther: When ISIS invaded on August 6, 2014, most of the townspeople fled, and about 14 did not escape in time. Those 14 were then given a choice: They could convert to Islam or be killed by ISIS. Instead, they chose to flee, and with one exception they successfully escaped. One person who was captured has not been heard from since.
Lopez: Did they all flee to Erbil?
Walther: Yes. Erbil never fell to ISIS and it was a major city. Many Christians from this town — and from other towns in Nineveh – fled there.
Lopez: Why do the Knights care so much about this issue, and this town in particular?
Walther: The Knights of Columbus were founded in the U.S. against a backdrop of religious discrimination. As our CEO Carl Anderson pointed out this week, religious liberty has been a hallmark issue for the Knights going back to our support of persecuted Christians during the Ottoman persecution a century ago. We supported Catholics in Mexico persecuted in the 1920s. We spoke out on behalf of the Jewish population in Germany in the 1930s. We worked to assist believers behind the Iron Curtain in the Cold War, and more recently we were advocates for the victims of the genocide against Christians and other religious minorities by ISIS. Religious freedom at home and abroad has been an issue of importance to the Knights for more than a century. And the magnitude of what happened with ISIS in the Middle East really cried out for a response.
Lopez: You’re taking the issue of this town fairly urgently — it was one of the more emotional moments in Carl’s speech yesterday. And you’re starting immediately?
Walther: Yes. I was told just a few minutes ago on a phone call with someone in Iraq that the work on this town will begin this weekend or early next week, and the Catholic church there anticipates moving these several hundred families back into Karamdes by the end of August.
Lopez: Why should people donate to this initiative? What would their money specifically go toward?
Walther: People who donate to this initiative should understand that, first, Knights of Columbus Charities does not take administrative fees, so all of the money donated goes to the cause. Second, repopulating this town, allowing these people to move home, is not only a step in the right direction for this town and the people of this town, but it is also a symbol of hope to the hundreds of thousands of people who were displaced by ISIS. It says to them, “There is a chance for you to move back.”
There are other towns where this is happening as well; other donors are looking at putting money into Qaraqosh, for example. Karamdes is predominately a Chaldean town with a Syriac population as well. Qaraqosh is a predominately Syriac town, and that effort is also being funded by other organizations. There is a sense that if this momentum can begin and these towns can begin to be restored, it will be a tangible sign of hope for people who haven’t had much hope in their lives for the past three years.
Lopez: Could you say it’s also a real defeat to the militants who wanted to eradicate not only these lives but the entire history of Christianity?
Walther: Certainly that is the case. One year ago, the cover of the ISIS magazine had the words, “Break the cross” and an image of a terrorist doing just that atop a church. ISIS clearly had as a major goal the destruction of any religious minority presence within Iraq and certainly they set about consciously implementing that goal within any area they controlled — Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, for example. To allow that stated purpose to come to fruition would be an ideological and actual victory for the Islamic State terrorists, even in the face of their military defeat.
Lopez: You’ve been working on this issue for a number of years now. What have you found most surprising and inspiring about these people who have had to face ISIS?
Walther: What I found most inspiring about the Christians that I have spoken to who faced this genocide is that they all tell me their faith was strengthened in this process. I suppose this makes sense, because they’ve given up everything but their faith, for their faith. So the fact that they’ve grown in faith despite the adversity is inspiring. The way that the Christians have come together to help other individuals who are persecuted, such as the Yazidis, is also incredibly inspiring. I met with several Yazidi families there who told me that the only aid they received, with the exception of two kilos of lamb, in the summer of 2014, had come from the Archdiocese of Erbil. Literally, out of their want, the Iraqi Christians helped people who had even less.
Lopez: Why aren’t international-aid agencies helping these Christians? Why is the Church in the best position, and Church groups like the Knights?
Walther: There is a mentality within certain aid agencies and the United Nations, among others, that aid must be given only on a means-tested basis. The theory is that those with the most immediate needs should get assistance. Those whose needs are not as great in the near term should not. The problem with that kind of a mentality is that it takes no account of the problems facing communities, particularly tiny minority communities. This current aid model might work well in the West or in a robustly pluralistic culture. But in a culture where the religious minorities are just a tiny fraction of the population, the effect of the prevailing aid mentality can be that these fragile groups are left out entirely and that as a result, these communities could literally cease to exist. Syriac Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf of Mosul likes to point out that the West understands the need to take care of fragile communities when it comes to endangered species of animals, but not when it comes to the almost extinct Christian communities of Iraq.
Lopez: What can be done by the U.S. government to support these minority communities in Iraq and the region?
Walther: First, it can pass H.R. 390, which was unanimously passed in the House last month. It should be passed as soon as possible by the Senate, since it directs this kind of aid to these endangered, genocide-targeted communities. Second, we are hopeful because there is a real awareness in this administration of the fact that these communities have been left behind and overlooked. And I have seen a real desire by people in the administration to fix that.
Lopez: The Knights don’t have to be the only people to restore towns here, as you alluded to. In addition to encouraging people to donate money toward this town, for people or organizations that want to do more than donate $2,000, what would you recommend?
Walther: We would certainly encourage any individual or organization interested in helping in this effort to contribute through the Knights of Columbus at christiansatrisk.org. We are in almost daily contact with the people doing the reconstruction in Iraq, and as Carl Anderson said this week, we are encouraging our own councils, churches, church groups, and even individuals to step forward. For $2,000, someone can move a family back home after they faced genocide and then years living as refugees. For $2 million, we can save an entire Christian town. In the grand scheme of things, it is a lot of money but it is not that much money. The more people and groups that help, the more we can do and the better the odds are for the survival of endangered Christian communities and other religious-minority communities in Iraq.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.