OTTAWA (CCN) — August 6 marked the first anniversary of the Islamic State’s (IS or ISIS) invasion of Iraq that forced more than 120,000 Iraqi Christians to flee ancient homelands with little except their clothes.
Some left traditional Christian towns in the Nineveh Plain for the Kurdish region of Iraq; others fled to refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Despite the efforts an international coalition has made to force IS back, there is no sign the fighting will end soon.
“We need national, regional and international solidarity to put an end to this illogical conflict, to these killings and to this exodus and to put everything in order within the context of a peaceful dialogue,” said the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church Louis Raphael Sako, in a news release from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN.) “We need action, and the taking of a clear and firm position in order to condemn what is happening.”
ACN reports 8.2 million Iraqis are in need of assistance and 3.2 million are internally displaced.
People have moved from a “chaotic emergency a year ago to an ongoing level of poverty, despair and need for commodities on a daily basis,” said Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada national director Carl Hétu in an interview.
People have little privacy, no running water or individual bathrooms, he said. Some live in containers like portable school classrooms that may have one window, and are extremely hot in summer heat that can reach 50C or cold in winter, he said.
ACN marked the anniversary with a renewed fundraising campaign. ACN through its donors has contributed 58 per cent of the $12,106,205 directed to the Iraqi Christian Aid Committee. CNEWA has contributed $7 million to aid Christians in the Middle East, including those from Iraq and Syria. Hétu said about one million comes from Canadian donors.
On August 4, the Knights of Columbus announced a major fundraising and awareness campaign at its 133rd international convention in Philadelphia. Knights CEO Carl Anderson said the new campaign aimed to “expose the crimes against humanity that are being committed.”
“It is time for a season of truth about what is happening to Christians and other minorities,” Anderson said, joined by Melkite Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, and Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, CSsR, of Erbil, Iraq.
In an interview from Philadelphia August 6, Warda said that in his diocese alone there are “12,700 families who were forcibly displaced from their homes and towns last year.” Erbil is in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Among them are Chaldeans, Catholics, Syrian Catholics and Orthodox, who have arrived with their bishops, said Warda, adding they all await news of liberation concerning their towns and villages. “They are not being shown any sign,” he said. “This is a big worry.”
Hétu said those who have been able to return to liberated areas have found their homes, churches and businesses demolished. Some returned to find their home booby-trapped and got killed, he said. “ISIS has basically destroyed all traces of Christianity in those villages.”
“People still live in fear, live with the unknown, and that creates a sense of despair,” Hétu said.
Warda said priorities are shelter, education and health care.
If families have a decent place to live it increases the likelihood they will remain in the area and not seek to leave, he said. “We should be able to do something to preserve the presence of the Christians.”
But the hosting bishops are very concerned about the peoples’ spiritual needs, he said. Each refugee community has priests and religious sisters “to accompany them.”
“We started reflecting about the providence of God in this crisis,” Warda said. “It’s immense. “The help and the love we have seen and experienced have strengthened the faith of the victims.” He pointed out the generous communities that have visited have also been transformed, contributing to love, faith and hope. “We are in the long Good Friday, but we are heading toward Easter,” he said.
“We have opened a trauma centre to help those in need, hope we also will get some experienced people to work and to help us in this service,” he said.
All the funds raised by the churches or agencies like the Knights, CNEWA and ACN go directly to the people in need, he said. The groups generally work through the bishops.
“We do no centralize the aid that comes, but we ask always to be informed so as not to duplicate funds to one community or camp or group of refugees and neglect the others,” he said. “We have teams of people who have been trained to give aid directly to the concerned people.”
ACN Canada head of information Robert Lalonde said three new projects have been approved. One is to support priests of the Syria Catholic Archdiocese of Mosul who fled to Erbil after IS occupied Mosul and Nineveh. They lost their churches, homes and personal belongings. Another project is earmarked for Syria where the civil war continues and a third for Iraqi refugees in Lebanon.