A Half Million Iraqi Christians Among Refugees

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Deal W. Hudson

In two previous Windows I reported on the persecution of Iraqi Christians and continued vulnerability of the remaining Christian communities.
Extortion and violence by Muslim extremists have driven 500,000 Christians out of Iraq, about one quarter of the 2,000,000 Iraqis who have left the country since the beginning of the Iraq War. Another 2,000,000 Iraqis are displaced within their own country.
Most of these refugees went to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, but only a relative few have settled in Europe and the United States. Sweden has taken the most Iraqi refugees — 40,000 – while the United States, which had only taken 1,608 by the end of 2007, has implemented a program for receiving 12,000 by the end of September.
John Klink is president of the International Catholic Migration Commission working in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria to process refugees who want to go to a third country. I asked him why so few Iraqis have made their way to the United States.
“It’s the result of a very strong crack-down after 9/11. The U.S. has to make sure who these people are, which makes it very difficult for those who are truly qualified. The barrier is much higher than it used to be.”
Iraqi Christian refugees, Klink told me, find themselves in a particularly difficult position in the refugee camps. Because they have been targeted as Christians, “They are reluctant to identify themselves, so they don’t get work, and their children don’t go to school.”
Klink’s organization (ICMC) has been working with these Iraqi Christian children to make sure they don’t fall behind in their education.
The special plight of Iraqi Christians is being noticed. In March, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner announced that France was receiving 500 Iraqi Christians. This was a result of his visit to Iraq and a personal visit with the Chaldean Patriarch, Cardinal Delly. “They [the Christians] are especially targeted. I realized this and am going to try, at my small scale, and remedy it,” Kouchner said.
A month later, Germany announced plans to pressure other European Union countries to consider giving preferential treatment to Iraqi Christian refugees.
I also asked Klink what he thought about special programs for Iraqi Christian families. “You have to treat Iraqi Christians as a persecuted minority under the overall umbrella of minorities. There should be very clear protection of Iraqi minorities. The idea of a Christian quota would backfire.”
Klink added that John Paul II foresaw the effect the Iraq invasion would have on its Christian communities. “John Paul II predicted that Iraqi Christians would be targeted for reprisals for the U. S. invasion. It made him concerned for the future of the Christian presence not just in Iraq but the entire Middle East.”
Klink is very familiar with Vatican foreign policy. He served 16 years as a Vatican diplomat, an advisor and negotiator for Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations. “What John Paul II thought would happen to Iraqi Christians has happened,” Klink said.
The challenge of dealing with the Iraqi Christian refugees, according to Klink, is that “These people can’t go home; they will be targeted.” This is the reason that Iraq and the United States have to collaborate in maintaining the safety of Christian communities.
This was the topic of the surprising visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to Benedict XVI on July 26. The Holy Father condemned the violence against Christians in Iraq, and Maliki asked Benedict XVI to “encourage Christians who left the country to go back and be part of the social structure of Iraq again.”
The question remains, however, whether it is safe for Iraqi Christians to return to their homeland? Although both the U. S. and Iraq have made the issue much more visible in the past few months, there is still little accountability for those who commit violence against Christians.
“This is the key,” says Klink. “There has to be accountability – based upon basic human rights — for anyone who is targeted, or as Christians they will face further retribution.”
Just in the past few days some Iraqis, about 240, returned home from Egypt on a plane sent by the Iraqi government. Whether or not the country can guarantee their safety is extremely doubtful, according to several international refugee organizations.
If Iraq will establish an autonomous area administered by Christians or direct its police and courts to make Christian safety a priority remains to be seen. What is clear is that Iraqi refugees, especially the 500,000 Christians, are not going home anytime soon, if ever.
If you want to help an Iraqi family, please make a donation to the Adopt-a-Refugee-Family-Program of the Chaldean Federation of America, an umbrella organization of nine Chaldean organizations in the Detroit area. I spoke last week to CFA chairman, Michael George, who told me about his organization’s ongoing effort to help the refugees.