100,00 people from more than 13 villages are on the heart of and in the prayers of and driving the pleas for stepped up international help from Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako for more help for the families who have fled from the Nineveh plains in northern Iraq. “From a spiritual and humanitarian point of view the present circumstances of these exiled people are not acceptable, while the suffering increases and the international efforts to alleviate their pain are insufficient,” he wrote earlier this week.
The patriarch added: “It saddens me to think of them choosing migration as a viable option. If the situation does not change the whole world will be called to take responsibility for the slow genocide of a genuine component of Iraqi society and of loosing its heritage and age old culture. ISIS tries to erase all traces.”
Responding to that grim picture, Aid to the Church in Need works to answer that cry and meet the needs of “the suffering Church,” which is quite acute among these displaced families. Edward Clancy, director of outreach and evangelization there, working out of their Brooklyn office, talks about what the patriarch refers to as a still “developing tragedy” and how Aid to the Church in Need is trying to meet the needs of the suffering.
Q: What is the latest you’re hearing from Iraq?
A: The situation in Erbil appears somewhat stable, with the U.S. having made an apparent commitment to help the Kurds defend the city, which is now home to many thousands of Iraqi Christians who have fled Mosul and the Nineveh plains. However, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako is still talking about a “developing tragedy” of 100,000 Christians who, driven from the Nineveh plains, have fled north with no clear place to go or reliable humanitarian support, let alone military protection. Echoing similar calls by the Vatican, the patriarch is calling on the U.S., E.U., and U.N. to “clear the Nineveh plain from all the elements of Jihadist Warriors and help these displaced families return to their ancestral villages and reconstitute their lives, so that they can conserve and practice their religion, culture and traditions.” The biggest concern of the patriarch and other local Church leaders is that those Christians who can will opt to migrate and never return. One suggestion the patriarch has made is that some internally displaced Christians could find shelter in Baghdad, which poses its own challenges.
Q: The number of people Louis Raphael Sako, the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, has reported as displaced is hard to inconceivable — “seventy thousand displaced Christians in Ankawa,” 60,000 from Dohuk. How does he know this? Where are these people? Who is helping them? How are they living?
A: With the situation in flux and changing by the day, it is impossible to have accurate figures. But the patriarch has consistently used the number 100,000 for the refugees still on the move. The patriarch and his fellow prelates are relying on a long history of living and working in the area. What there is no doubt about is that the Iraqi Christian population has sharply declined in the past decade from a peak of 1 million to approximately 150,000 today.
Q: There are scattered reports of people dying of starvation. Who? Where? How can they be helped?
A: On this front, too, there are no firm numbers. The U.S. State Department and United Nations, as well as, on a smaller scale, Catholic Relief Services and other Catholic agencies, including Aid to the Church in Need, are responding by providing emergency supplies to all those at risk, Christians, Yazidis, and Muslims. In recent days, the Iraqi government itself has sprung into action. But it is clear that the needs are enormous and will only continue to grow.
Q: Crucifixions. Beheadings. How to know what’s true? How to soberly and urgently navigate the news, such that it is?
A: Patriarch Sako has been adamant. He said the other day: “No decapitations.” He did confirm mass killing by ISIS of Yazidis. There is a proliferation of horrible images on the web, many of them claiming beheadings and crucifixions, but we must be very careful in lending credibility to such claims. That said, what ISIS is doing is bad enough! And the patriarch has also warned of a “genocide” of the Iraqi Christians.
Q: What are the stories you wish would get out/be heard?
A: Despite suffering systematic persecution and violence over its 19 centuries of existence, the Christian community in Iraq — which is known to be a disinterested mediator seeking the good of the country and all its inhabitants — is a vital bridge, able to play a constructive role in facilitating negotiations between warring parties embroiled in sectarian conflicts, as well as facilitating relations with the international community.
Notwithstanding its indispensable role as the connective tissue of Iraqi society, the Christian community, because of the loss of security and growth of sectarianism, has become a shadow of its former self. ACN fears that, without a political solution that guarantees security, the ongoing violence in Iraq is hastening the end of nearly 2,000 years of a vital Christian presence in Iraq.
And what is true of the role of Christians in Iraq similarly applies in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
Q: What does a director of director of evangelization and outreach at Aid in the Church in Need do?
A: I have been with ACNUSA for the past 15 years and am responsible for developing and maintaining the relationship between ACNUSA and the U.S. Catholic hierarchy as well as the network of 18,000-plus parishes in the country. A key aspect of this role is keeping ACNUSA constituents informed about the most urgent needs and strategic priorities — which currently are focused on the persecuted and suffering Christian communities in Iraq and Syria.
Q: What is Aid for the Church in Need’s place in and around Iraq? How are you maneuvering in and around the country? How are you meeting needs now? Is this kind of situation exactly why Aid to the Church in Need exists?
A: Aid to the Church in Need has been supporting the Church and Christians in Iraq and Syria for decades. Our support has been to fortify the Catholic Church and to keep her ministry alive, so that it might provide the educational, spiritual, community and sacramental support needed. We fund projects through the bishops and the local Church: those who know best what their people need and what will have the most lasting impact.
While there are many agencies that do wonderful work when there is a crisis, Aid to the Church in Need differs in that we are committed to keeping the Church alive in these countries and around the world before, during, and after the crisis has faded from memory. The institution of the Catholic Church is uniquely capable, and has actively improved the lives of all people wherever she is present.
By supporting Aid to the Church in Need, donors help the Church to keep the faith alive and offer hope for today and for many years to come.
Q: How did the situation in Iraq get this bad?
A: The vacuum of leadership in Iraq — and the relative neglect of the international community — allowed the rise of radical jihadist forces to go unchecked for so long.
Q: How are you all thinking of ISIS and its threat?
A: ISIS presents an absolute nightmare — and not just for Christians. They will stop at nothing, literally. Ironically, not all that long ago Christian leadership in the Holy Land urged caution in using the word “persecution” in speaking of Christians. With this new terrorist force on the scene there clearly is outright persecution of Christians and other vulnerable minorities
Q: What, if anything, can an American reading this do for a Christian fleeing Iraq?
A: Of course, we — like other agencies active in the region — are actively campaigning to raise money. But a key factor is for Americans to become more aware of what is going on today, and to better understand the history of the region and, again, the importance of the Christian presence as a moderating and edifying presence in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.