Iraq: A Heroic Church That Could Disappear

A Vatican Delegation and Humanitarian Organizations Visited Kurdistan, A Region that Shelters Thousands of Refugees

There are more than 2.5 million refugees in Iraq presently, one million of whom are from the Nineveh Plain, according to data by the United Nations (UN). About 40% of the refugees are in  the north of Iraq, in the region of Kurdistan. Over 50% of those refugees are younger than 25.

In the center of the city of Erbil and Duhok, the situation seems to be under control; however, according to UN data, there are daily incidents of violence, terrorist attacks, stoppage of explosive material in the areas of Erbil, Duhok and Suleimania, in the Nineveh Plain and in the region of Kirkuk.

This is the situation that a  delegation, made up of members of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and Caritas Internationalis, was able to see first hand. Last week they travelled to Kurdistan to encourage and take the Pope’s solidarity to these greatly punished and persecuted people in recent months.

“It is always the case that after a few months or years, conflicts are forgotten. Our visit, as others, is determined ‘not to forget’ these peoples. We must do everything possible not to forget. And for us as a Church there is an additional reason: they are brothers and sisters in the faith. And their presence in this region is very important. We must pray and help as much as possible. The International Community creates the problem, as in Syria, but it doesn’t assume the consequences,” says Michel Roy, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis explaining meaning of this visit and mission.

For his part, Monsignor Segundo Tejado, Under-Secretary of Cor Unum, explained that the idea of the trip arose because of the role of this dicastery of coordinating and helping Catholic aid agencies. In connection with these agencies, he said that “they are the great forgotten ones in these situations. The people who are working there do so in very precarious and very difficult conditions. They have to coordinate very large projects and they collaborate with the local Church and the local authorities. To visit them is a way of encouraging them.” These persons “are our arms” as not everyone can go to Iraq to help displaced families. Therefore, “to help our arms to do it well is an important endeavor.”

Before leaving on the trip, the delegation attended the General Audience so that the Pope could bless two images of Mary, Undoer of Knots, to whom the Pope is very devoted. Now these images are in the local Churches — the Chaldean Church of Erbil and of Duhok.

Moreover, Monsignor Tejado said that during the trip they came across two aspects essentially. “On one hand the drama that these families are living. To pick up your family and have to move isn’t easy. It’s what the Family of Nazareth lived. The tension, the difficulty, the thought of not being able to go back to one’s homeland, one’s home, work, school this is very hard.” This war, he explained, is causing an incalculable humanitarian drama. Moreover, they learned that some programs have had to be closed. “We were told this by tr lacking. In the beginning there was much solidarity, but when the media fails to focus on the situation, attention declines,” he noted. This is yet another reason for the trip; ‘to move the waters of help.” Therefore, Monsignor Tejado took advantage of the occasion given to him by ZENIT to make “an appeal to charity and solidarity.”

During the trip to Kurdistan, they were able to see the fundamental needs. Lodging: “rent is preferred because it give families more dignity.” Education: it’s not easy to organize it and in this connection some Catholic agencies are working very hard, such as CRS, JRS, Caritas-Iraq,” and, finally, health.

Talking with the refugees they found that some were “very optimistic who think that it will all be fixed in six months.” Others, however, “Believe that it will be a long time and not easy.” Monsignor Tejado said that they also witnessed the joy they have seeing that someone goes to see them and to know that we go in the Pope’s name. Many families also shared with them the difficulty of going back – of the return.” In this connection, the Under-Secretary explained that many families have had to flee after been denounced by the neighbors . “They are aware of the difficulty of returning being a minority in a context of Muslim majority. This difficulty was perceived in many,” he added.

And this Holy Week they are receiving, for the second time, a visit of Cardinal Filoni as papal envoy. According to Monsignor Tejado, the Cardinal loves these people and this country very much, where he lived as Apostolic Nuncio. The Holy Father is worried about this country, which is going through such a grave situation. “It’s a Church that can disappear,” he noted. And, in the same line, Monsignor Bernardito Auza , Holy See Observer at the UN, shared this concern, who last Monday spoke of this drama and the possibility that the Church might disappear as well as Christians from the Middle East. “This is a drama because Christians have always been in this land, more than in any other place, expression of what Jesus called us to be, salt of the earth. In addition, they have been an element of balance in the struggle between Shi’ites and Sunnis.  Therefore, in many of these nations Christians have been a point of balance,” explained Monsignor Tejado.

In regard to Monsignor Auza’s intervention, the Under-Secretary said “he has put his finger on the sore because of the emergency – also from our point of view – which is enormous.” This drama, he continued, “is not well reflected in the media.” Our impression is that there is more to it than we are told. It has been many years since there has been such a large and dramatic movement of people.

The Christians of Iraq are now an example for all. Some of those who were in the refugee camps, and whom the delegation had the occasion to meet on its trip, explained that “despite this ‘death’ there is always a light which is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” And these people are going to try to take this light, which is their Christian faith,  and which they have maintained for centuries and centuries in a hostile and difficult environment . They are heroic Churches.

On Saturday they took part in a celebration of Palms, which was full of faithful. “And with great joy with the Bishop, the priests of the diocese …. A Living faith, which is identity but also presence,” he said.

Michel Roy, also explained that they were able to see that Christians, Bishops, the whole diocese, is very involved in the work of hospitality to refugees. Likewise, he pointed out that Caritas is working with these fringes. “Caritas’ work has been a work “of emergency.” Many persons have arrived in the past nine months. Therefore there are basic needs such as food, potable water, roofs,” explained Roy. He also mentioned the importance of psycho-social aid and specific care for children.

In addition, he said that the Church tries to have a close and personal relation with the displaced and that she makes a great effort for families. In this connection, he specified that there are many organizations of the Church that are working in this area and that Caritas, at the request of Bishops, is carrying out an endeavor of coordination.

Our visit is one among many that are useful to give hope, so that they know that they are not alone and abandoned, even if they don’t see the end of the tunnel.

Finally, Michel Roy said that it is urgent to respond to the question that these refugees pose: What is our future?” Therefore, “we must do something to ask our governments and the International Community to commit themselves to find a solution.”

Taking part in this trip were different representatives of humanitarian organizations, among whom were the Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, Michel Roy; the President of Caritas of the Middle East, Joseph Farah; the Secretary General of AVSI, and the Director of FOCSIV. Moreover, it is a mission that was carried out jointly with the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, with the presence of Monsignor Khaled Ayad Bishay, , who was of great help because of his knowledge of the terrain.  

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