Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest in Vermont who decided he had to do something to help the Christians in danger of extinction in Iraq and Syria and so he set up Nasarean.org, which educates (through lapel pins and bracelets and zipper pulls) and raises money. He just returned from visiting some of the Christians in refugee camps in the region. He talks about why he went and what he saw and what Americans can do. – KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why did you go to Iraq?
Fr. Benedict Kiely: Several reasons, but the key would be what I might call “faces and voices” — one can support a charity, write checks, become an advocate — all very good and praiseworthy things, but when you have met the real people you are trying to help, looked into their eyes, and heard their stories, everything changes. It is, in a sense, a journey from the head to the heart. I have been working to support and help the persecuted and oppressed Christians of Syria and Iraq since last summer, through Nasarean.org and active involvement with Aid to the Church in Need, but I needed to go — practically to make sure our work continued to receive some exposure, but also to learn what is really going on. I was advised several times not to go, including by a senior figure in the administration, but it was a mission, not the visit of a representative of an NGO. I went as a priest to visit my brethren in need.
Lopez: Where exactly were you?
Kiely: I was in Erbil in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish region — really now the epicenter of an increasingly independent Kurdistan. Erbil — and other parts of the Kurdish region — is where most of the 120,000 Christians fled following the loss of the Nineveh Plain to ISIS during the months of July and August last year. Also this is where many of the Yezidi community sought shelter after the terrible brutality they received at the hands of ISIS.
Lopez: What did you see?
Kiely: It was made clear to me from the beginning, from the very first moments after arrival, that it was necessary to cultivate a certain humility and appreciate that much of what one thinks one knows — via the media here — is, at the very least, only partially correct — and much is the opposite of what we have been told. The situation is extremely complicated, far more complicated that our sound-bite culture would allow — if I took away one abiding lesson it would be that fact — how complicated things are! But my purpose was to meet and listen — so I saw a number of the camps where the “IDP’s” — Internally Displaced Persons — are living. I prefer the term “refugees in their own country.” After Hurricane Katrina, many residents of New Orleans were “IDP’s” — they had to go to places like Houston. But they did not lose all political representation, the right to work, or the right to provide for their families — this is what has happened to the Christians and minorities as Iraq continues to implode.
The situation is extremely complicated, far more complicated that our sound-bite culture would allow.
The camps are now housing the Christians in containers. They have moved first from living on the streets or unfinished buildings to tents, and now to containers. They are in abandoned areas, or right in the heart of Ankawa, the Christian section of Erbil. They are dusty, but clean. I visited with some of the families, heard their stories. I visited some of the make-shift schools. After nearly a year in exile, the people are realizing that they need to do all they can to educate their children. It’s truly humbling to see them try to organize school — including exams and tests, in an abandoned building – or to see the wonderful Dominican nuns organize a kindergarten, in an empty house. If Americans want to support something, they should support these projects. I visited with some members of the Yezidi community. Sadly, they are still in the worst conditions — in half-finished buildings, very large camps. I heard first-hand stories of terrible atrocities: babies being cut in half by ISIS, husbands beheaded in front of their wives. I saw tremendous courage, fortitude, good humor, and love — and anger and despair.
Lopez: Whom did you meet?
Kiely: I met with the priests who are running most of the camps. These men are all “IDP’s – “Refugees” themselves — driven out by ISIS from their homes and parishes. They are completely exhausted, all day long trying to be the voice of authority in the camps, providing money, advice, solving disputes. They are inspirational — but only human — and I am not sure how much longer many can go on. I met with the wonderful Dominican nuns, who were driven out of Mosul and Quaraquosh. They are my candidates for any Nobel prize going! They are highly educated (one young nun I met had a PhD from Oxford University — she has been denied a visa twice to pick up her diploma in England!)
I met, as already said, with families, men, women, and children. Curiously, I also met with senior figures in the Kurdish government, including the Minister of Religion and his deputies, and the deputy speaker of the Kurdish parliament. I am not sure if they really knew who I was (an amusing aside — on my last day I met with a representative of the Syriac Orthodox Church. He turned to my translator and said, in Arabic, “Who is he?” My translator laughed and told me what he said. I responded in English, “I am a nobody.” The priest understood enough English to smile!) I also met with some of the representatives of the minority communities who have a place in the Kurdish parliament; I cannot speak much about what we discussed.
Lopez: What’s the mood of a Christian in exile?
Kiely: It’s fair to say, although not politically correct, that the default position for a Christian for the last 2,000 years is to be in “exile.” Suffering and persecution is also really what the Lord promised. Easy to say as we confront the suffering of an occasional power outage or our favorite TV show being cancelled. There is a very clear division, sadly, among the good people I met. Most, of course, as we all would, want to return to their homes — they have lived there with their families for 2,000 years! This is a church founded by St. Thomas the Apostle — it is the Church of Pentecost. That long list of difficult names that readers stumble over every year is real — it’s these people! But also many have no sense of when and if they can return — so emigration is the only sign of hope. They worry that they have been forgotten, especially by the Church — not meaning the Church providing food and shelter, but the Church advocating for them. Why, they asked me, is there not more outrage – U.S. Catholics seem to be almost unaware? The Faith is strong. They are proud of their heritage, but again and again I heard, “They have destroyed our culture.” This is the land that still speaks Aramaic — the language of Christ — and we are concerned about footballs being deflated and sad people who don’t know what gender they are.
Lopez: What are they praying for?
Kiely: To live in peace, to raise and educate their children, to be able to worship, to live, to go home — can’t we all identify with that?
Why, they asked me, is there not more outrage – U.S. Catholics seem to be almost unaware?
Lopez: What good is happening that we can all help with?
Kiely: The organizations that are truly helping are all identified with the Church, period — not just the Catholic Church — for example Samaritan’s Purse was very clearly in evidence — but yes — practical support to Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, my own little group (but give to ACN for that — unless you want the product to show solidarity) — support the Dominican nuns and their schools — pray and advocate! Let me tell you one story that illustrates why each one of us must do more than talk. I met with one priest running one of the camps. He was angry. He told me that, at the height of the crisis last August when people were living on the streets, a religious minister came from America to see him. The minster told him that he would make sure everybody received a bible. The priest told him that if he did, he would use the Bibles in the fire for cooking — he was trying to feed 1,000 a day! The minister was scandalized — how could you treat the Word of God like that? We must do more than talk and pray!
Lopez: Did people ask you for anything from Christians in America?
Kiely: Despite my last point, they did indeed ask us to pray — which is, of course, not an excuse for inaction. One of the nuns told me, “When you pray for us you see us — we are family.” The Archbishop of Erbil told me that “the Cross when shared is bearable.” So one of the initiatives I am working on from the Catholic perspective is to petition Pope Francis to order a worldwide Rosary for the persecuted — it saved Western civilization at the Battle of Lepanto. Our Protestant brethren can clearly join in a prayer campaign with us. They asked us to not forget, and, as one of the nuns said, “Please tell the American Christians how lucky they are.” They want their fate to be part of the political process — it should be front and center. Obviously they want help to go home or to leave, but who will help them?
Lopez: How did you leave? Do you have any hope for the future of Christianity there? Do they?
Kiely: I left tremendously humbled, having met men and women who had lost everything solely because they are Christians. It puts our petty complaints into real perspective. I left strengthened in my own faith. We are, as Pope Francis has said, right back in the first century in the time of the Christian martyrs. I left immensely sad. I am not sure if I will ever see some of these people again Their fate is in the balance; in Syria it is almost too late. I left knowing I was watching a slow-motion genocide, in which all who remain silent are complicit. I left, quite frankly angry — angry at the pathetic response of the current administration, which, I can say with absolute authenticity, is universally derided and ridiculed, both by the refugees and the Kurdish government — but also angry with the apathetic response of the U.S. Catholic Church — with bishops very concerned about illegal immigrants but doing very little about the imminent slaughter of the Christians of the Middle East. A priest said something which has haunted me since I left, “We will not forget those who helped — we will not forget those who kept silent.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow of the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.