A young child at the Sharia Refugee Camp in Dohuk, Iraq. Credit: Daniel Ibanez.
By Andrea Gagliarducci
Erbil, Iraq, Mar 28, 2015 / 06:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Hoping to awaken the world conscience on Iraq, a Pontifical delegation traveled to Erbil and Dohuk to foster local communion and shed light on the dramatic plight of Christians in the country.
The delegation also offered an icon of Our Lady Undoer of Knots, blessed by Pope Francis, to the local bishops.
“Our goal is to foster communion among Caritas and the other charitable agencies operating in Iraq to assist internally displaced persons, so that any intervention will be even more effective than it has been until now,” said Msgr. Segundo Tejado Munoz, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and head of the delegation.
He told CNA that while the commitment of international charities until now “has been huge and of great impact,” there are ways to make it even more effective.
CNA was part of the delegation that traveled to Iraq March 26-29, visiting refugee camps in Erbil and Dohuk, in the territory of the Iraqi Kurdistan. The delegation included a representative from the Congregation for Eastern Churches, the general director of Caritas Internationalis, and representatives of some of the Catholic charities active in the territory.
With ISIS forces beginning a major offensive in June 2014, more than 2.5 million refugees – many of them Christian – fled from Mosul and the Nineveh Plan to Erbil and other cities in the Kurdish area, finding protection in Peshmerga-controlled lands.
There are now about 25 camps in the area housing internally displaced persons, and a house renting plan has been put into action.
Archbishop Barshar Warda of Erbil explained how the renting plan has developed.
“Around Erbil, there were houses that were not inhabited, and we managed to get 560 of these houses for rent for internally displaced persons,” he told CNA.
Rentals generally cost $500-1000 per month, but usually “two or three families can live in those apartments, and so they can manage the expense,” he said.
He added that the recovery plan for internally displaced persons was based on three priorities: shelter, education and health.
Churches in Erbil and Dohuk are now barely capable of sustaining Mass attendance, which multiplied with the arrival of massive refugee numbers.
Almost 1,000 young boys and girls took part in an early Palm Sunday celebration on March 28, concluding by throwing their caps into the air.
Archbishop Warda stressed that “for Easter, I want to underscore that any help here will make a difference in the life of the refugees – of the Christian refugees and of all the refugees here. The longer they are coming to stay, the more they are desperate.”
In Erbil, the Al Amal Hope Center hosts about 170 families in an unfinished building. Each family receives one or two rooms, and they can cook and wash their clothes in common areas.
One refugee, Farouq, lived in Mosul but was in Paris visiting his son when the violence arose in Iraq.
“I could remain there with him, and escape any danger. But I had a family in Iraq,” he said. So, he returned, fleeing with his wife and younger daughter to Erbil.
Another refugee, Ozman, was a school principal in Mosul. Now, he lives in the informal settlement of Sharia, not far from Dohuk, with his wife and his five children.
“Before the sudden arrival of the militants of the ISIS, we used to live in peace and harmony with Muslims,” he explained, adding that they feel betrayed by the militants.
The situation of internally displaced persons is critical. Many have been living in camps for nine months now, with no expectation of returning to their home towns.
The people do their best as they adjust to their new life for the foreseeable future. One settlement is surrounded by a fruit and vegetable market. Staff members of Caritas and other charities organize activities for children and offer informal classes.
Still, conditions are far from “normal,” and the people living in the camps miss their home towns.
Bishop Rabban Al-Qas of Dohuk and Amadiiyah told CNA that “the area is now safe, because we fostered a culture of encounter and harmony. But we need a new education, so that these things will never happen again.”
The Pontifical delegation gave the re-production of the icon depicting Our Lady Undoer of Knots to Archbishop Warda and Bishop Al-Qas. The icon was blessed by Pope Francis at the end of March 25 general audience.
“We explained Pope Francis that we were going to Iraq, and he was very pleased with that,” Msgr. Munoz said.
Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken about the situation in Iraq, offering prayers of solidarity and words of comfort, along with calls for dialogue and peace.
As a result of the Pope’s continual interest in the situation in Iraq, several more Papal delegations will travel to the country in the coming days.
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, who had been appointed Papal envoy to Iraq last August, will spend Holy Week in Iraq.
Shortly after him, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, will visit. A trip by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interreligious Dialogue, is also expected in the coming weeks.