Even as Pope Francis heads this weekend to Armenia, whose history he has described as the “20th century’s first genocide,” earlier this week he made comments about genocide and martyrdom, expressing his preference for the latter. Commentators have been quick to note that his remarks show that he thinks genocide — as a term — doesn’t go far enough, especially in expressing that the reason these Christians were persecuted was faith — not ethnicity or some other factor.
If you read his remarks, he wasn’t making a political statement about legal terms — he himself was among the first to use the term genocide to bring light to and describe the so-called Islamic State’s terrorization of Christians and other religious minorities in and around Iraq and Syria. But while the legal and political setting needs terms such as genocide, the pope is reminding Christians that we need to remember that persecution based on faith is what is motivating this attempted extermination. Many of those Christians killed or kidnapped in Iraq had a choice. They could have abandoned their faith. Most did not, and so we do well to consider them martyrs for whom persecution and death were preferable to denying their faith — their fundamental identity — as Christians.
The Knights of Columbus have been in the lead on both these fronts, on the ground with the Christians who have been displaced by ISIS, working to restore dignity and make their futures less uncertain. They’ve petitioned the U.S. government and the United Nations to name the genocide and not to overlook these persecuted people in the chaos of heated migration debates.
Andrew Walther, vice president for communications there, recently went to Erbil to see what funds raised from their Christian Relief Fund were being implemented and see for himself what the people want and need. We talk a bit about it here. – KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Where Christians are displaced, what are the living conditions?
Andrew Walther: The conditions are really unimaginable for the average American. In one instance, I saw a family baking bread in what looked like an oil drum, using an open flame from what looked like a blowtorch of some kind. In another case, I was told the showers weren’t working that day. In one center that was being shut down and the people moved to more permanent housing, there were issues with drainage and rodents. It is important to understand that with the majority of Christian refugees, you have a group of people that were mostly middle class, they had homes, cars, etc. Now many are living with their entire families in “caravans” — small containers that are about 100 square feet. They are wall-to-wall with hundreds of other families. Shower and bathroom and kitchen facilities are shared. The kind of daily privacy we are used to, and that they were used to, is gone. Some are also in apartments or houses, but there, too, the bedrooms are each typically occupied by one entire family with a kitchen, bathroom, and a living room as common areas for all the families sharing that apartment. While better, this still means that privacy and personal space are at a minimum.
While these conditions are far from ideal, it is clear that the Catholic Church has done an incredible job of finding housing for the Christians that isn’t in tents or under the stars. In the early days, it was an even worse situation. Now the Church is working to move as many of its people as possible into actual apartments, which is an enormous improvement. The Knights of Columbus is assisting in this effort by funding the building of more than 100 permanent apartment units there, which will allow the families to have their own individual apartments, without having to share them with other families.
Progress is certainly being made, but it is a slow and costly process. The refugees and the Church desperately need ongoing financial support to continue transitioning people to better situations, and to create a situation that is sustainable for the community in the long-term.
Lopez: Why is this Christian genocide such a priority to the Knights? What about others suffering there?
Walther: Christians — and other religious minorities — face a particular set of problems. They face extremist persecution in the major refugee camps. Those I met with in Erbil don’t get money from any government. Nor do they get money from the U.N., which is badly underfunded. Government and U.N. aid money isn’t assigned on the basis of what group might disappear, or what group faced targeted persecution and genocide. It is assigned on the basis of what individual is in the most need at any given moment.
Of course, Christians there are literally in danger of disappearing as a community. They have been targeted for complete elimination because of their faith, and without international funds from governments or the U.N., their options for assistance are limited, so it is very important for us to help them, especially when the Catholic Church has established such a robust program of support for refugees there. This program of support that helps Christians, as well as others in need, is totally dependent at this point on money from charitable organizations, such as ours, and individuals, such as those who donate to our Christian Refugee Relief Fund.
The only way to really help the Christian refugees is by working through the Church, which continues to have responsibility for them.
In terms of giving some priority to those who are covered by the genocide designation, an analogy we have been using is helpful here. It was a terrible thing to be a war refugee in France during World War II, but it was something altogether different to be a Jew in France at that time. It is the same sort of situation here. Those targeted for genocide face a situation that deserves to be given a certain priority. Everyone affected by the violence has our sympathy, and the Church — and the aid we have given — has helped many non-Christians too, but making sure these Christian genocide survivors actually survive is a worthy and important priority. If we don’t help them, who will?
I should also mention again the generosity of the Christian aid programs — even to non-Christians. I met a Yazidi family living in an encampment of tents next to an open sewer in a neighborhood called Ozal City. The Catholic Church is in the process of moving them into permanent housing — just as it is doing for the Christians. As we talked over tea in their tent, I asked who had helped them. They said only the Catholic Church. I pressed them. Had they received nothing from the U.N. or any local or foreign government agency? They said no. Then one said, actually, they had. In summer 2014, just after they arrived, the U.N. had dropped off a couple of pounds of lamb. That was the first and last they had seen of government or U.N. assistance. Then another spoke up and said there was a clinic up the road run by Slovakian doctors. He wondered if maybe that was a U.N. operation. I told him that was one of the clinics we fund, run by a Catholic university in Bratislava. He smiled and said, “Well, then only the Church has helped us.”
It is the same story at the clinics we fund in Dohuk. The doctors treat Christians, Yazidis, and Muslims. In fact, a great many of the patients in Dohuk are Yazidis, including some escapees from sexual slavery, and the clinic in Erbil is the only one in that mixed neighborhood (of Christians, Yazidis, and Muslims) that is open all day each weekday. As a result, its patients are from all of those communities.
There is something else that is important to remember. When those displaced originally flooded into Kurdistan, the government, which is in a difficult financial position, consulted with the bishops, and asked that the Church take responsibility for Christian refugees, and the Church agreed to do this. So the only way to really help the Christian refugees is by working through the Church, which continues to have responsibility for them.
Imagine what would happen if people didn’t directly support the Church’s efforts. There in Iraq, Christians are a small minority and the Church is not rich. Without outside support, the Church couldn’t possibly help those who now rely on it.
Lopez: What are some of the other faces and names and stories Americans ought to know?
Walther: We tend to think of people who have been through a persecution labeled by governments around the world as genocide as being victims, and that is certainly true. But they are also heroic, for not giving up their faith, for not losing hope, for not seeking revenge, for not giving in to hatred, and for standing for forgiveness.
Some have been exceptionally heroic. Kahlia — in her 50s — was captured by the Islamic State along with nearly 50 other Christians. She repeatedly fought off ISIS terrorists who came to rape the younger women. She fought them off again when they came to take a nine-year-old girl as a bride. The terrorists were enraged. They put a gun to her head and a sword to her throat, and they demanded she convert. Many of the men with whom she had been captured had already been forced to convert, but Kahlia would not. Facing death, she told her would-be executioners that since Jesus had died for her, she was willing to die for him. Giving her life for her faith, for Christ, wasn’t abstract for Kahlia, it was literal. She ended up surviving the ordeal, and walking across the scorching desert to Erbil, where she is now. I think she summarizes the sort of courage that these Christians have needed to keep their faith in the face of losing every material possession.
Others in the community also told us — without prompting — that she had saved many people.
Lopez: What more are the Knights hoping to do?
Walther: In addition to our ongoing relief work on behalf of these genocide survivors, which is critically necessary, Carl Anderson, the CEO of the Knights of Columbus, laid out a six-point plan of action for our government and the international community in his recent congressional testimony. The plan calls for the U.S. government to:
‐Increase funding and ensure that those dollars actually get to genocide victims;
‐Support the survival of these indigenous religious communities;
‐Support holding those responsible for the genocide accountable for their crimes;
‐Assist members of these minority communities in attaining refugee status;
‐Prepare for the human-rights challenges as ISIS-held territory is liberated, so that Christians and others who fled can decide their own futures — whether they wish to stay in the areas to which they fled or wish to return home.
‐Promote the establishment of internationally agreed-upon standards of human rights and religious freedom as conditions for humanitarian and military assistance, so that religious minorities will be treated as full and equal citizens, with equal rights as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This plan would help ensure that Christians there could continue to serve as the source of pluralism that they have been in this region for almost 2,000 years, and that they could continue to witness to forgiveness, reconciliation, and mercy, as they have done throughout this grim episode.