Group leads ‘Dunkirk in reverse’ for Christians of Iraq, Syria

  • Written by:

John L. Allen Jr.
A drawing by an Iraqi Christian child living in a camp for internally displaced persons. (Credit: Image courtesy of Aid to the Church in Need.)
Right now, it’s impossible to say whether Christianity will survive in Iraq or Syria. Yet one thing can be said with certainty: If it does, it will be because of groups such as Aid to the Church in Need, which has been leading a “Dunkirk in reverse,” aimed not at getting Christians out but helping them to stay.

NEW YORK – As of early 2017, the question of whether Christianity will survive in Syria and Iraq seems a jump ball. Of late ISIS has suffered setbacks, but they’re down rather than out, and what the future may bring is anyone’s guess.

Yet one thing about the future can be said with absolute, metaphysical certainty: If Christianity does survive, it will be because of Aid to the Church in Need and a handful of other church-sponsored organizations who came to the rescue.

Note the lack of qualifying verbiage in that statement, such as “in part” or “to some degree.” There’s no “to some degree” in this case – as George Marlin, chairman of the board for Aid to the Church in Need in the U.S. puts it, “If the Church were not there, these people would be literally starving in the streets and dying.”

In effect, what Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been engaged in over the last five years is a sort of Dunkirk in reverse for the Christians of those two nations – rather than boat-lifting them out, ACN and others have been scrambling day and night to help them stay in place, delivering both emergency humanitarian assistance and also long-term support for reconstruction and sustainability of Christian communities.

“People are dying, kids are starving, people are being put into slavery,” said Marlin, who’s also author of “Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy,” trying to express the urgency of the situation.

Marlin said that anyone who can look at the drawings made by Christian children in refugee camps today, for instance, and not feel their heart shattering, simply doesn’t grasp the human drama of the situation.

“As Roman Catholics, we have an obligation to help our fellow Christians,” Marlin said. “If not us, who?”

Founded in 1947 in the rubble of post-war Europe, ACN’s original mission was to support the persecuted church behind the Iron Curtain at the explicit request of Pope Pius XII. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 it’s expanded its scope to include support for suffering Christians everywhere, and today, above all, that means the Middle East.

In New York on Friday, I had the chance to sit down with Marlin; Brad Miner, another ACN board member; Sarkis Boghjalian, ACN’s national director; and Joop Koopman, ACN’s director of communications.

Between January 2011 and August, ACN has pumped around $45 million into relief efforts targeted at Christians in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon alone, paying for food, clothing, medicine, and shelter, as well as investing in micro-scale economic development to allow those Christians to envision a future.

In other large-scale crises, such contributions by faith-based groups would be an important but, relatively speaking, minor part of the overall humanitarian response, most of which would be funded by public-sector funds from organizations such as the UN, USAID, and so on.

Yet in the case of Iraq and Syria, almost none of the funding provided by those government sources actually reaches Christians, because it’s targeted at massive camps erected for refugees and internally displaced persons, and most Christians won’t go there because they fear the camps may be hijacked by Islamic radicals. The UN and USAID won’t give money directly to the local Christian churches, in part over the usual Western hang-ups about church/state separation.

In other words, groups such as ACN, Catholic Relief Services, and the Knights of Columbus (Crux’s principal partner) aren’t just taking part in the relief effort for Christians in Iraq and Syria – they are the relief effort.

The same holds true for local governments. Boghjalian explained that in Iraqi Kurdistan, the deal was explicit – Kurdish officials told Church leaders, “We’ll take care of the Muslims, you take care of the Christians.”

The Kurds have been willing to give Church leaders what they need in terms of zoning permits and freedom of action, Boghjalian said, but not a single cent in public money.

The bottom line, as Marlin colorfully puts it, is that were it not for church groups, “these people would be down a rathole.”

Big-picture, Miner was blunt about what he believes to be at stake.

“These are the oldest Christian communities outside Israel,” he said. “People need to understand that there really is a threat that these ancient communities will disappear from those homelands, and they are as much Christian homelands as they are Muslim.”

“They are profoundly at risk for disappearance,” Miner said, “in ways that are not pleasant.”

Marlin is a well-known figure on the New York scene, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a onetime Conservative Party candidate for the city’s mayor.

He bristles at what he sees as a lack of outrage over the brutalities Christians and other minorities are enduring.

“Christian persecutions in the Middle East have been falling on deaf ears in the United States for the last two, three, four years,” he said. “We’ve had an administration in Washington that sort of looked the other way.”

He’s equally frustrated with what he sees as a tepid response from Church leaders – up to, and including, Pope Francis himself.

“I was frankly disappointed when he came to the United States, particularly when he spoke to Congress and the UN.,” Marlin said. “Here was an opportunity to make some very strong statements, it should have been an incredible part of his theme, and sadly it wasn’t.”

“I just don’t think he’s done enough,” Marlin said, vowing that he and ACN will continue to “bang the pots and pans” to bring attention to the issue.

Boghjalian explained that at the moment, ACN is participating in a joint effort with other donor agencies and also local church leaders in Iraq to develop a needs assessment, outlining what it’s going to take over the long term to make it possible for the country’s historic Christian communities to rebuild and to endure.

He estimates the price-tag could be in the neighborhood of $250 to $300 million, noting that everything is dependent on the security situation, and in the absence of a serious international strategy to guarantee peace, it’s difficult to plan for much of anything.

Marlin said there will have to be some kind of post-ISIS “Marshall Plan” for the Christians of the region.

In terms of the logic for mobilizing American support, Marlin says that beyond the spiritual or humanitarian arguments, there’s also a national security dimension. ISIS leaders have repeatedly vowed that they’re coming after the West, he said, so it comes down to a basic choice – we face them now in Iraq and Syria, preserving an alternative vision of the Middle East as a pluralistic culture in which minorities have a safe harbor, or eventually face them here.

“Christianity has been there for 2,000 years,” Marlin said. “It’s my hope, as it certainly is for the bishops there, that everyone doesn’t just disappear and it’s over.”

In the first place, the reason there’s even a nucleus of Christian life left in the two martyred nations of Iraq and Syria is because of the grit of the local Christians themselves, most of whom are conscious of their heritage and are willing to endure incredible hardship before they give it up.

In the second place, however, it’s because in a time of widespread indifference, a few determined groups have launched one of the greatest private rescue operations in Christian history, making it possible to at least ponder what might come next.

Churchill once referred to Dunkirk as a “miracle of deliverance.” What ACN and other groups are providing instead right now is in essence a “miracle of delay,” buying precious time for the rest of the world, including the international powers that be, to step up before it’s too late.

Here’s hoping their miracle won’t be in vain.

Group leads ‘Dunkirk in reverse’ for Christians of Iraq, Syria