ISTANBUL – Recent violence targeting an indigenous Catholic community in Iraq has led thousands to find refuge in Turkey, not even a generation after being uprooted by Baâ€™athists. Nearly 500 parents and children gather in Istanbul this week to sing and rejoice with a visiting church group from Texas
The sound of hundreds of children singing in Arabic filling an otherwise quiet neighborhood of Istanbul might be heard on any given evening. In a small, crowded parish, more than 300 Christian Iraqi refugee children performed songs and stories for guests last Sunday to welcome an interfaith group visiting this week from Texas.
These Chaldean Christian refugees are among the millions of Iraqis who have fled the war in Iraq since 2003. Despite making up only three percent of the Iraqi population, Chaldeans now constitute one of Istanbulâ€™s largest Catholic communities, with origins dating back to the time of Christ. In the last six weeks alone, an estimated 12,000 Christians have fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul amid religiously-motivated murders and bombings that have left more than 24 people dead.
Thousands have found refuge in Turkey where, like Christians throughout the country, this group of nearly 500 Iraqis can be heard worshiping freely in their own language each Sunday morning. Less than a generation ago, Saddam Husseinâ€™s Baâ€™athists forced Iraqi Christians from villages and towns where they had lived for centuries. The recent violence targeting these indigenous Iraqis has uprooted their community again.
Many of the families in the parish had been living in or around Mosul, one of the largest educational and research centers in Iraq and the Middle East. “Most of these families have received good educations,” said a mother from Mosul sitting beside her two teenage boys in the packed parish. Though she said her family left their possessions in their home now likely inhabited by strangers, she nodded toward her boys, saying opportunities were ahead of them, not behind.
She and 100 other Iraqi parents send their children for lessons at a center funded by the Salesian Fathers of Don Busco, located in the Apostolic Vicariate of Istanbul. Most the Iraqi families in this community spend one to three years here before being cleared to move to the United States, Australia, Canada and Europe.
But the U.S. policy of limiting the number of Iraqi refugees it admits increases the burden on these families to find a safe place to live Äž and on neighboring countries, such as Turkey, Jordan and Syria to take them in. Christian groups in Turkey and around the world began stepping in to ease some of the burden in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991 when half a million Iraqis sought safe haven across Turkeyâ€™s border.
Emotions ran high Sunday evening as children exchanged stories and hopes for the future with 22 people from an interfaith and mixed-race church group from Austin, Texas. Under crayon-colored Iraqi flags, the children listened as Pastor Ron Campbell and Istanbul resident and trip facilitator William Bache connected Americaâ€™s ability to overcome much of its institutionalized racism of 45 years ago to its responsibility to help ease Iraqi suffering today. “It hurts our hearts that you had to leave your homes because of conflict and violence,” Bache said with tears in his eyes.
Harder for Christian refugees
Of the 18,000 refugees who registered in Turkey last year, nearly one third are from Iraq, according to figures from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Despite the hardship of living as refugees, this group has been fortunate compared to other Christians with whom they fled for Turkey.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Turkey, Metin Ã‡orabatÄ±r, told Compass Direct this week that Christian refugees from Iraq face many more problems than Muslim refugees who receive substantial help from Turkeyâ€™s multiple Islamic foundations. The policy of resettling them in satellite cities means that some Christians end up without a support system. “The Chaldeans in Istanbul have NGOs and churches to help them, but in satellite cities there is no church or community to help them,” said Ã‡orabatÄ±r.
An enthusiastic science and math student said her family left Kirkuk six months ago and hoped to move to the U.S. Between translating for friends in near-fluent English, she said she looked forward to learning in America. But she wants to return to Iraq “sometime,” she added. “Itâ€™s my home.”