Church calls for Christians to help care for Iraqi refugees

Iraqis displaced by the war in their homeland are coming to the United States by the thousands. And Christians have a responsibility to care for them, faith leaders say.

A Nashville congregation will host a forum on Iraqi refugees on Saturday, hoping to draw attention to the plight of millions of Iraqis who have fled their homes since 2003
The Saturday morning forum at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Nashville will feature a report from activist and journalist Kelly Hayes-Raitt, who worked with refugees in Iraq for several months in 2008. Organizers hope the event will rally support for the plight of refugees.

“The mandate for Christians is found in Matthew 25 — ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat … I was a stranger and you invited me in,'” said the Rev. Bob Abstein, a retired Episcopal priest and former pastor of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 4.7 million Iraqis have been displaced during the war in Iraq. More than 2 million of those have fled to countries like Syria and Jordan. Others have gone to Europe or the U.S.

More than 12,000 Iraqi refugees were resettled in the U.S., with an additional 17,000 expected in 2009. That includes 26 Iraqis resettled in Knoxville last year by the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program. “These are people who can’t go back,” said Erol Kekic, director of the Church World Service program.

Kekic said that Iraqi refugees who come to the U.S. have been through an intensive screening process. “We need to know who they are and what their story is,” he said. “They have to show that they have a well-founded fear of persecution if they return home.”

Churches and other nonprofits play a key role in resettling refugees. The federal government provides some basic support, Kekic said, but churches often supply needs like clothing, housing and emotional support.

“It’s not just a handout,” he said. “It’s time and relationships and a hand up.”

Disconnected from war
Graham Reside, executive director of the Cal Turner program, said that unless they have family or friends serving in Iraq, most Americans are disconnected from the war in Iraq.

“We’ve left dealing with Iraq to the professionals in the government or military,” he said. “That’s not an option for informed citizens. Congregations should be the moral voice for their community.”

During the discussion, which will include a representative from the Islamic Society of Nashville, attendees will discuss practical ways they can assist refugees.

“We believe that, as members of the body of Christ, we are called to do all we can to grasp fully the human tragedy of war, to help alleviate the suffering and to help restore communities,” said Ken Penegar, a member of Christ Church Cathedral’s Global Missions committee, which helped organize the event.

The free event, which begins at 9 a.m., is co-sponsored by Christ Church Cathedral and the Cal Turner Center for Moral Leadership in the Professions at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Contact Bob Smietana at 615-259-8228 or