Christians from Iraq need our help

Germany has taken the initiative to tackle the Iraqi refugee crisis. The German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble proposed to his EU colleagues a plan to accept more Iraqi refugees in Europe and to step up member states aid efforts for the region. So far, majority of all national ministers and governments remain silent. Europe cannot ignore and overlook the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948 no longer: 4.5 million Iraqis were forced to leave their homes under the most brutal conditions. More than 2 million of the Iraqi refugees have found shelter in neighboring countries.

While European governments were divided about the Iraq war and many were part of US-led coalition, Europe should now be united in its effort to contribute some relief to the current humanitarian crisis. The French presidency has taken up the German initiative on Iraqi refugees. On Thursday this week [24.07.2008] the Interior Minister of the EU member states will decide upon a proposal of giving shelter to some of the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees in Europe. Europe should send out a strong sign of solidarity and assist the suffering Iraqis.

Five years after the American-led intervention, the security situation in most parts of Iraq is still unstable. The safer areas in northern Iraq are better off but still suffering from a huge influx of refugees from other parts of the country, which poses new problems for internal stability. This is also true for the neighboring countries; especially for Syria where 1.5 million Iraqis live today. For Iraq’s neighbors, the humanitarian crisis has become unmanageable. Europe’s approach should be, first of all, to assist the refugees in northern Iraq; second, cooperate with the neighboring countries to mitigate the pressure caused by the influx of millions of Iraqis; and third provide shelter for some of the most vulnerable refugees in Europe.

While all Iraqis suffer from a lack of security, the situation of Christians and other religious minorities like Mandaeans or Yezidi is particularly dreadful. Following the start of the Iraq war, persecution of Christians increased dramatically. The kidnapping and murder of the head of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, Archbishop Rahho, in February 2009 in Nineveh, is indeed the most public sign of this disastrous situation, condemned by the EU Parliament and the Slovenian Presidency. Since the early days of Christianity, Christian communities have lived in the region. Some like the Chaldeans still today pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. Today, Christians face existential persecution. Refugees report about rape, forced conversion and executions. Many of them receive life threatening letters from Islamic terrorists before being brutally expelled from their homes. Of the 1.4 million Christians who were in Iraq 20 years ago, more than half have already left the country. From 600,000 Christians who remain living in the country, over 400,000 of them fled to Northern Iraq and Nineveh plain.

While American NGOs have begun to address the refugee problem, the official US position still sees a stable and secure Iraq as the only solution to the refugee crisis. However, the refugees need support now. The deteriorating situation in the neighboring countries does not allow for further delay. Refugees in Syria, Jordan or Lebanon are often barred from work and running short on funds. Europe should increase its support for refugees who have found shelter in Iraq’s Northern provinces, and as well as for those in neighboring countries.

In addressing the refugee crisis, one has to admit that for some of the most vulnerable groups of refugees in the neighboring countries, a return to Iraq will not be a viable option. Christian refugees, as well as other minority groups, will not be able to go back to their ancestral homeland in the foreseeable future. This group of the most vulnerable refugees need shelter which the West is able to offer to some of them by establishing asylum quotas. Quotas are also important as they signify hope in such a desperate situation, and thus help to stabilize the circumstances in the border countries.

The refugee crisis in the Middle East presents not only a humanitarian tragedy but a serious geopolitical risk. Europe must prepare to accept more of the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees through quotas. More countries should follow the example of Sweden and the Netherlands and join the current German initiative to increase their efforts if this crisis is to be solved. The meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council this week is a good opportunity to send a strong signal of solidarity. We are obliged to do so as Europeans loyal to legacy of European founding fathers and common values we share together. Now is the time to act.

Signed by conservative and Christian democratic Members of European Parliament:
Anna Zaborska, Slovakia, Manfred Weber, Germany, Konrad Szymanski, Poland and Carlo Casini, Italy

Original text of article published in German daily DIE WELT, Slovak daily SME, Polish daily POLSKA and Italian daily AVVENIRE