Iraq has done ‘absolutely nothing’ for displaced Christians

Children in the Church of St. Josef in Ankawa, Erbil in Iraq. Credit: Aid to the Church in Need.
Erbil, Iraq, Oct 8, 2014 / 04:47 am (CNA/EWTN News).- An Iraqi bishop whose community is hosting more than 70,000 Christians who fled violence in Mosul and its surroundings has expressed dismay at the national government in Baghdad for failing to offer assistance.

“The reality is that Christians have received no support from the central government. They have done nothing for them, absolutely nothing,” Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Archeparchy of Erbil told Christian charity Aid to the Church in Need Oct. 5.

“The central government is to blame. It has not fulfilled its commitment to the people. The government in Baghdad received a lot of help from the international community for the displaced people from Mosul and Nineveh – but there has been no sign of it here.”

Archbishop Warda added that the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan – of which Erbil is the capital – had made it clear that it is unable to offer financial assistance because it had ceased receiving subsidies from the national authorities.

Christians’ concerns about the Iraqi national government, and their more positive relationship with the Iraqi Kurdish government, are not new, however.

The Islamic State, a militant Sunni Islamist organization, was early this year among the rebels fighting in the Syrian civil war, but it spread its operations to Iraq in the spring, and took control of Mosul and swaths of territory in north and west Iraq in June.

In mid-July, the Islamic State effectively expelled thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims from its territory, which it declared to be a caliphate.

On July 11 – one week before the ultimatum which dramatically increased the numbers fleeing Mosul – Archbishop Warda had told Aid to the Church in Need that the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan was welcoming the fleeing Christians, and that they had a future there.

“Not only is there security here, but the government is prepared to listen to our concerns. This became evident in the present refugee crisis,” the archbishop told Aid to the Church in Need. “The Kurdish government has opened the borders to Christians.”

Fewer than two weeks later, on July 23, a local abbot, Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana, wrote that “public relations” statements made by the Iraqi government – such as its statement “we are all Iraqis and all Iraq is ours” – is akin to “a person who is issuing bank checks but he doesn’t have a bank account.”

“Nice words and sympathy statements are not enough. There should be deeds and practices,” Archimandrite Youkhana said.

The day prior, the bishops of Mosul – gathered across denominations after being forced out of their city – assembled in the Erbil suburb of Ankawa for a meeting under the leadership of Chaldean Patriarch Sako.

The bishops showed their gratitude to Iraqi Kurdistan “for receiving and embracing the displaced families, providing them with the necessary aids,” contrasting this with their statement to the national government that “we are waiting for practical acts to reassure our people, not for statements of condemnation and denouncement.”

In mid-August, Pope Francis sent Cardinal Fernando Filoni, a former apostolic nuncio to Iraq, to serve as his personal envoy to the area. He spent most of his time in Erbil, where he met with both Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Fuad Masum, president of Iraqi.

According to the Kurdish outlet “Rudaw,” Barzani told Cardinal Filoni that “it is the duty of the Kurdistan Regional Government to protect and support displaced Christians, Yazidis and other religious and ethnic groups seeking refuge in the Kurdistan Region.”

Barzani added, however, that the regional government “cannot provide adequate assistance,” given “the number of refugees and displaced people.”

When he returned from Iraq, Cardinal Filoni told CNA that because Christians in Iraq are unarmed, “it is necessary that someone – in this case the legitimate authorities of the country – should defend minorities, especially those most in danger.”

Despite Cardinal Filoni’s meeting with Masum – and his delivery to him of a message from Pope Francis – Archbishop Warda’s comments this month evidence that nothing has changed in Baghdad.

“Our people have been abandoned,” he said.

The bishop also charged that the Iraqi government has provided assistance to displaced Muslims, while neglecting the needs of displaced Christians, and that Muslim leaders in the country “have thus far failed to unequivocally condemn the violence carried out in the name of Islam, and the ejection of all Christians from their ancient Biblical homeland,” Aid to the Church in Need reported.

More than 120,000 Christians fled Mosul and other towns in Nineveh province for cities in Iraqi Kurdistan this summer. In total, there are more than 1.2 million internally displaced persons in the country.

Archbishop Warda said the displaced Christians in his eparchy and in Dohuk province are increasingly concerned for their future, after being away from their homes for two months now.

He reported many feel betrayed, and are likely to emigrate. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country’s Christian population has already plummeted, from about 1.5 million to 400,000.

“We visit the tents every day and speak to the people we are helping and they say they would like to go back to their homes immediately,” Archbishop Warda said. “But how can you live again among the people who were your neighbors who have betrayed you?”

One Catholic who left Mosul told the bishop that he had seen video footage of his neighbor, whom he had considered a friend, pulling down the cross of a former church.

He also told of another Christian who left Mosul who was phoned by a former neighbor to tell him he had entered his home and had taken all his cash, giving half to the Islamic State and keeping the other half for himself.

Archbishop Warda’s eparchy is coordinating food and shelter relief for the displaced, with the aid of international agencies.

“Church agencies have been here helping us since day one and they remain with the people long after the headlines have moved on to something different,” he said.

Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus have both given more than $1 million to aid Christians in Iraq, and substantial aid has also been provided by Caritas agencies and Catholic Relief Services.

“The crisis that has hit Christians from Mosul and Nineveh is not just a shock,” Archbishop Warda concluded. “It is for us genocide. All voices have acknowledged that this is a crime against humanity.”