Officials from a Catholic charity visited refugees in Iraq over the last few days, reporting on the growing desperation of the minorities there.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Executive President Johannes Heereman, ACN Program Director Regina Lynch, and the adjunct director of communications for the international Catholic agency, Maria Lozano just returned from a fact-finding mission to the capital city of Kurdish Iraq. Their goal was to assess the needs of the tens of thousands Iraqi Christian refugees, who, to escape, the onslaught of the ruthless jihadist forces of ISIS, have sought refuge there.
In a telephone interview from Erbil, Lynch described to Vatican Radio what she called “a very, very desperate situation.”
“If we do not want to be silent witnesses to the last chapter of the history of Christendom in Iraq, the international community must respond decisively now,” said Heereman. “This cannot remain simply the concern of the Church in Iraq. We must not be silent witnesses to a destruction that is now reaching the scale of a disaster of civilization. One can certainly speak of an impending genocide,” he argued, adding, however, that “the Church can alleviate pain and want, but questions of security and defense as well as the right to life and religious freedom are a political matter,” Heereman emphasizes.
To-date, ACN has provided some $400,000 in emergency funds to help the Iraqi Christian community of Mosul and the Nineveh plane.
Here follows a report by Lozano:
This morning (Aug. 14) we left Ankawa and Erbil with their concentration of refugees and drove with Archbishop Emil Nona of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Mosul to the area of Dohuk, north of Mosul, where the refugees are spread out over many villages. The archbishop, too, is a refugee, as he was caught outside of Mosul attending a youth meeting in another Christian village when ISIS overran the city in early June. Like so many of his faithful, he had to leave everything behind.
The normal way to Dohuk is through Mosul but with ISIS still occupying Iraq’s second largest city as well as surrounding areas, we took a more mountainous route passing at times less than 12 miles from ISIS forces. However, there were only a few military check-points through which we passed very easily. In the distance we could see the Christian town of Alqosh, which has for the most part been abandoned by its inhabitants in anticipation of the arrival of ISIS.
Our first visit was to the village of Mangesh just north of Dohuk. Twenty-five years ago this was an entirely Christian village and then Sadam Hussein brought in so many Kurds that the Christians became a minority. Today the Christian families number about 300 and they were joined recently by some 77 Syrian Orthodox families, who earlier this month fled their village close to Alqos. One of the men from the village had already gone out three days earlier in search of a safe refuge for these families and per chance discovered the village of Mangesh.
When these locals heard bombardments they took it as the sign to leave and they were very thankful when the parish priest of Mangesh, Father Yoshia Sana offered them the Catholic catechetical center as a temporary home. At the center, we met their Orthodox priest who expressed his gratitude to Mgr. Nona for the kindness and generosity his people have received. They are still in need of more tents and some ventilators and Mgr. Nona promised to get some for them. Just as in Erbil, temperatures were soaring to more than 110 degrees and in one case 7 families were sharing one tent. One man told us that he wants this situation to end—“not for my sake but for the sake of my children.” One woman with three disabled children was crying, saying she wanted to go back to her village but she was afraid to return.
During the rest of the day, we visited several more villages with Father Yoshia and Father Samir Youssef, the pastor of a neighboring parish. We listened to the anquish of the refugees, who had fled from Mossul, Alqosh, Telkef, Telascof and so many others communities. We saw the cramped conditions under which they live and we heard of the generosity of other Christian families, who share their own often humble homes with one or two other families.
We went to one village, Baghere, where the priests had only just then discovered 47 refugee families. Among them were one-month old twins, who had come into the world as refugees. All these people told the same story of how they had left Mossul with nothing, often fleeing in panic once they realized that the 60,000 government troops had gone. They spoke of their concern for their children – one man introducing us to his two daughters who have been studying at the university in Mosul. One of them was a medical student, who reported that there were 15 other Christian students in her class. Some 8,000 of the approximately 40.000 students at the university in Mosul are Christian. Will they ever be able to return?
Some of the refugees spoke about wanting to leave Iraq believing that they have no future there and being disappointed by the attitude of their former Muslim neighbours, who robbed their houses once they had left. Others said they want to stay, that they want to go back to their villages and home—but only if there is an international peace-keeping force to protect them. This is a message that we heard frequently throughout the day. One 15 year-old girl, Ronda, looked surprised when we asked her if she wanted to leave. “I want to stay in Iraq,” she said. “I love it.”
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. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); (CAN)