Iraqi-born bishop advocates for his homeland’s Yezidi minority

By Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service
Syriac Catholic Bishop Barnaba Yousif Habash of the Syriac Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance, which is based in Newark, N.J. CNS photo/Paul Haring
WASHINGTON – Iraqi-American Catholic leaders, who have persistently advocated for the embattled Christian minority in Iraq, are now going to bat for a smaller ethnic group that likewise traces its origins to the troubled region.

The Yezidi, who number about 700,000 in the Mesopotamia region of Iraq bordering Syria, have been subject to persecution and displacement, largely at the hands of ethnic Kurds. The last significant incident — which Mizra Ismail, chairman of the Yezidi Human Rights Organization, labeled a “genocide” — was a 2007 series of bombings that claimed the lives of more than 500 Yezidi in just one day.

Ismail and other Yezidi leaders in North America visited the U.S. bishops’ headquarters as part of a three-day visit to Washington to rally support for their people. Their visit was co-ordinated by Syriac Catholic Bishop Barnaba Yousif Habash of the Syriac Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance, which is based in Newark, N.J. Habash is responsible for the spiritual needs of Syriac Catholics in the United States and Canada.

“We cannot be Christian but to serve the other,” said the Iraqi-born Habash. “We cannot be Christian but to be for the other. … Their situation is considered worse than ours.”

The Yezidi trace their monotheistic religion back more than 6,000 years, which would predate Judaism. Members may “exit” the religion, Ismail said, but one must be born into the faith, since it does not proselytize or accept converts.

Many Yezidi, squeezed between the Kurds and the advancing Islamic State fighters and the Syrian army, have had to flee their homes in the middle of a punishing Iraqi summer with little but the clothes they wore.

“They do not even have this,” Habash said, holding up a glass of water, because the Islamic State controls the water supply. “There is no power. There are no hospitals. There are no doctors. There is no peace, no security.”

In the eyes of the Muslims that surround them, the Yezidi are “not Christians, they are not Muslim, they are not Jewish. They are just a little bit a higher level being than a mouse.”

Habash also voiced his skepticism that Kurds, who have been sheltering Christians fleeing other parts of Iraq and even building churches for them, would be as accepting of them should Kurds be granted their own state, citing “perpetual enmity between the Christians and the Kurds.”

The bishop added he would prefer to see a “united Iraq,” saying that would provide the greatest guarantee against ethnic violence.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, one of the lawmakers visited by the Yezidi delegation, is reported to be drafting a bill that would call for the creation of internationally patrolled “protected zones” within Iraq, including one for the Yezidi. Habash cautioned against such a move, saying it could lead to the creation of three or more separate states within Iraq’s current borders.

But David Lazar of the American Mesopotamian Organization, a member of the delegation, said boundary redrawing may already be taking place given Syria’s civil war and the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, much of whose territory would include a big chunk of present-day Iraq.

Lazar added that the Iraqi government, which has been slow to form, is undergoing a “Lebanonization,” guaranteeing that representatives of the most significant religious and ethnic groups in the country get choice leadership spots.

Ismail called the current Iraqi government “corrupted” and “dysfunctional,” and argued that protected zones would provide a buffer from ethnic violence while giving a new government time to establish its authority over the country.