Assyrian priest urges NZ to take on refugees

Father Aprem Pithyou
A leader from New Zealand’s 5000-strong Assyrian Christian community is calling for New Zealand to help the hundreds of thousands of their kind displaced by Islamic State militants in Northern Iraq.

While Prime Minister John Key is considering sending SAS or other military assistance to help counter Isis, Assyrian priest Father Aprem Pithyou, of the Ancient Church of the East in Strathmore, Wellington, says his people need more humanitarian aid and wants Immigration NZ to accept more Assyrian refugees currently in Turkey and Jordan.

Father Aprem, 67, came to New Zealand from Iraq with his family in 1989 to escape persecution under Saddam Hussein’s regime and is one of about 5000 to 6000 Assyrian Christians in New Zealand.

While some are from Syria most are from the Plain of Nineveh in Iraq, which has been home to the Assyrians for thousands of years.

However in June, the region’s major city Mosul and surrounding, predominantly Christian towns fell to Isis militants.

“It’s a very, very bad situation we haven’t faced before. They want to establish an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria and go back to what we call the dark centuries.”

Since then hundreds of thousands of Assyrian Christians on the Plain of Nineveh have been displaced from their homes by force.

“They put in front of them three options, convert to Islam, pay tribute or leave everything behind.”

Most are now scattered across Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq but lack resources, in many cases having been robbed of what little they could take with them at Isis checkpoints.

“Now it’s the beginning of winter, it is very, very hard for our people to live there. It is very cold in the North, they need a lot of things to protect themselves from cold, disease and hunger.”

Father Aprem welcomed the intervention of United States forces, “or any other foreign troops, especially Arabs” to help the Iraqi Army and the Peshmurga Kurdish militia combat Isis.

But in the meantime, “they need a lot of humanitarian aid”.

While many had hopes that Isis would be driven out and they could return to their homes, others wanted to leave Iraq or had already done so and were living under difficult conditions in Turkey and Jordan, “because they have no hope to live in the country”.

“Of course we are asking for humanitarian aid from New Zealand and Australia because we still have people inside the country and they need help but what about our people who are in Turkey and Jordan?

“We ask New Zealand Immigration to make it more easy for our people who are displaced to help them to get here,” Father Aprem said.

Mr Key yesterday said his Government would make a decision about stepping up New Zealand’s assistance to the troubled region some time next month.

He has not ruled sending the SAS to Iraq but emphasised that was “at the outer edge of what I’d like to do” and that there were “other options that were far more appropriate and realistic”.

– NZ Herald