Father Andrzej Halemba heads the Middle East Section of international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. In October, he visited the displaced Christians of Iraq: "It is the most tragic thing that I have ever experienced,” he said.
Q: Do the Christians in Erbil there still have hope?
Father Halemba: It is a very difficult situation. Without question, we are talking about genocide here. Genocide is not only when the people are killed, but also when the soul of a people is destroyed. And that is what is happening in Iraq now. It is the most tragic thing that I have ever experienced. I have seen people who have been deeply wounded in their soul. In the various crises in this world I have often seen people who have lost everything. But in Iraq there are Christians who have had to leave everything and take flight three or four times. They can see no light at the end of the tunnel.
They are all very traumatized. Normally in such situations it is the women who pull everything together. But in Kurdistan I have seen women who are staring into nothingness and have closed in on themselves. Their tears have run dry. It is something that I have never seen anywhere else. The men, by contrast, tend to aggressiveness. This has to do with the fact that they are no longer able to fulfil their previous role as the breadwinner and protector of their family. Now they have to beg for everything and they have no perspective.
Q: Do you have the impression that the Christians wish to leave Iraq?
Father Halemba: When one has lost all hope, one wishes to leave one’s homeland. The majority do not wish to return to their homes. This is a bad sign for the future of Christianity in Iraq. The Christians feel that in Iraq they have been betrayed and abandoned, and they want to get out. The Kurdish fighters who were supposed to defend the Christian areas against ISIS assured the Christians that they were safe. Then suddenly ISIS overran the Christian towns and villages. Often they could not even take a change of clothes with them.
That is a bitter feeling, to have nobody on whom one can depend. It reminds many Christians of the massacres in the Ottoman era, 100 years ago, when hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Christians were slaughtered.
Q: According to Church figures, more than 120,000 Christians are now homeless and stranded in Kurdish Iraq. Are they receiving the aid that they need?
Father Halemba: The Christians are not being helped, either by the central Iraqi government or by the Kurdish regional government. So they feel like second-class citizens. This is not the least reason why they are so angry. The Christians are mainly left to their own devices. Naturally there is aid from outside. But the Christians can only come by it through their own efforts. We have true heroes of neighborly love in Iraq. Bishops, priests and members of religious orders, but also lay people, have done exemplary work on behalf of their fellow men and women
Q: What is the greatest humanitarian challenge at the present time?
Father Halemba: The coming winter is a huge challenge. It can get very cold in Kurdistan, and it can snow. The rains are already starting to come. There are efforts underway to re-house the people from tents into accommodation containers. But in my opinion the greatest challenge is the mentality of the people. Have they already decided to turn their backs on Iraq and the Middle East forever? This is where we must take action and give the people hope.
Father Halemba: Above all, the people must once again believe in the future of their ancient and beautiful country. So the international community must work towards ensuring that the government in Baghdad is strengthened and incorporates all the religious and ethnic groups in the country. Only in this way can ISIS be ultimately defeated.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.