CNEWA pleads for help for Iraqi Christians

By Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News
OTTAWA – The Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) has put out an urgent plea for help aiding Iraqi Christians targeted in a “brutal civil war.”

“Everybody’s affected, but Christians in particular because as a minority they are more vulnerable,” said CNEWA Canada general secretary Carl Hétu in an interview from Jerusalem.

Hétu attended the recent annual gathering in Rome June 23-26 of agencies working with the Eastern Church organized by the Congregation of Eastern Churches. The nearly two dozen agencies present learned Christians in Iraq have been warned to hide any religious symbols in their homes, businesses or on their persons; buildings identified as churches will be demolished, Hétu said.

Christians in Iraq have begun receiving letters telling them they will have to pay a special tax because they are living in Muslim territory, he said.

Extremists have already begun to impose their rules and regulations, he said. About 50,000 Iraqi Christians have fled to regions where they can be protected, while others risk staying at their peril.

The extremists on the Sunni side are a coalition of different rebel groups, “one more radical than the other,” that includes elements of Saddam Hussein’s former army that was never dismantled, Hétu said. Those army elements, which were always active, have joined forces, as have many local Sunni villages that were not well-treated by the Shiite government in Iraq, he said. The coalition includes rebel groups from Syria

Iraqi president Nouri Al-Maliki is Shiite heads a coalition government representing Shiites, Sunni and Kurds, but Sunni felt ill-treated and allied themselves with forces hoping to oust the present government, Hétu said.

The rebel coalition calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham or ISIS is considered even more extreme than Al Qaida and is alienating other Sunni in the region such as those in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, he said.

Though observers have indicated “it was only a question of time this would happen, nobody could have predicted the strength and the magnitude,” Hétu said.

What’s not clear is whether there is any alignment with Syrian Assad government forces, but many believe the next target for these extremists is Syria because they want to expand the size of their Caliphate, he said.

The instability in Syria, however, has created a nest allowing this extremist group to grow, Hétu said, noting many of the rebels in both Syria and Iraq come from outside those countries.

Political instability “allows radical forces to express themselves and organize,” he said, noting the countries were extremists are powerful have weak or non-existent governments. In countries where the governments are strong, these groups are arrested and jailed.

“Syria continues to be a nightmare,” Hetu said, noting Syria’s nuncio told the gathering in Rome people there are starving and the rebels and the government are using food as a way to harm their enemies. The nuncio often can’t get out of the nunciature, and “food distribution is very difficult because of the fighting,” he said.

After three years, the fighting in Syria between the Assad government and forces loyal to it and rebel factions shows no sign of stopping.

As in Iraq, however, the Syrian rebel groups are not monolithic, but “fractured into hundreds of small groups fighting each other and many are not part of this ISIS group,” Hétu said.

The fighting in Syria has become a regional battle, pitting Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar against Shiite Iran, which supports Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“There’s petroleum in the middle of that,” he noted.

The war in Syria is becoming a proxy war where many are using the fighting to establish regional domination, control of resources and for an ideological and religious battleground, he said. Many of the rebels are being financed by outside forces.

Iraq is also becoming a proxy war where you don’t see the enemy clearly, “you can only speculate,” he said.

The problems in Syria have put increasing pressures on Jordan. Rebels are controlling parts of the border with Jordan. Jordanians are “very scared,” and Jordan is already hosting millions of Iraqi, Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

“They’re afraid of imploding,” he said.

Jordan is stable for now, however, and many Christians who have left Syria and Iraq for Jordan are worried since it is the last place they can live in peace or at least be protected, he said.

Lebanon is on high alert, Hétu said, though Shiites, Sunni, Hezbollah and Christians have worked together to prevent war there. Lebanon has welcomed more than a million refugees, many of them Christian, to the credit of the Lebanese people, he said.

CNEWA provides support all over the Middle East. In Syria, its program is geared entirely for refugees, with special attention to Christians, though Muslims in need of aid are also helped, he said.

But CNEWA’s key focus is the survival of the Church in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, through providing food, housing, pastoral and psychological care, he said.

“We need to be very concerned for Christians leaving the region for good. This is our preoccupation.”