Iraqi Christians find little help

Lebanese and Iraqis prayed together at the St. Raphael Chaldean cathedral on Sunday, July 27, 2014. (The Daily Star/Venetia Rainey)

?Rayane Abou Jaoude?Venetia Rainey| The Daily Star
BAABDA, Lebanon: Joseph Toman leaned on the heavy wooden door of St. Raphael Chaldean Cathedral and sighed in exasperation.

He wore a dirty shirt and his weathered feet peered out of a pair of tattered sandals, a far cry from the rest of the well-dressed Lebanese church attendees that milled around to discuss the morning’s Mass.

“I am going to starve to death,” he said, half to himself, as his eyes pricked with tears.

The 80-year-old Christian, who grew up in Mosul, left his home in Baghdad just 15 days ago. He heard about the advancing forces led by Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – a religiously intolerant and violent extremist group that recently took over huge swaths of northern Iraq – and decided to use all of his savings to flee to Lebanon.

He is now renting a small apartment in Dikwaneh north of Beirut, but with no work and no family to help him, he is quickly running out of money. “We need help, we can’t pay rent,” Toman said, referring to other Iraqi Christians who have made the same journey as him out of fear for their lives.

Although he was barely able to afford the taxi ride from his home to the cathedral in Baabda – the Lebanese headquarters of the Chaldean sect that many Iraqi Christians are part of – he felt it was important that he attend Sunday’s Mass anyway, especially as it was held to show solidarity with people exactly like him.

“I only have God and the church,” he added.

ISIS, which recently changed its name to Islamic State, gave Christians in Iraq’s northern city an ultimatum last week to convert to Islam, pay a religious tax or be killed, forcing hundreds of families to flee and tearing apart a community that has existed since the earliest days of Christianity.

The militants spray-painted Christian houses with the Arabic letter “N” for “Nasrani,” or “Christian,” to identify them.

To symbolically counteract this surge in religious intolerance, children at the cathedral Sunday held up signs of words beginning with “N” that represent Christian values: “narham,” we are merciful; “nashkor,” we are thankful; “nousalli,” we pray; and “naghfor,” we forgive, among others.

Many also carried Vatican flags in an appeal to the highest church authority to provide support.

Estimates for how many Iraqi Christians have fled to Lebanon in the last few months are hard to come by and likely to be an underestimate. UNHCR said it had not registered any, while Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, part of the international Catholic relief agency, said it had been approached by two families from Mosul, one in Sin al-Fil and one in Sidon.

Father Youssef Denha, an Iraqi Chaldean priest at the Mass Sunday, said he only knew of one such family from his sect, but was not sure about those from the other churches of Christianity present in Iraq, such as Assyrians, Syriacs and Armenians, to name a few.

“Between 2013 and 2014 around 500 Iraqi families have come to Lebanon,” he said, referring to those who have fled the country to escape a growing level of violence, extremism and religious intolerance. “But our concentration now is on the families that were forced to leave Mosul.

“And we are expecting their number to increase.”

Part of the problem is that, like Toman, many Iraqi Christians used what little they had to escape the brutal grip of ISIS and the prospect of living life either as a second-class citizen or being killed.

Sabri Risheresh and his wife managed to grab their passports before leaving their home in Mosul two months ago, but their son and his family were not as lucky, and now find themselves trapped in northern Iraq, unable to leave the country.

“They threatened to kill us, so we had to leave,” Risheresh says as his wife weeps silently beside him. “We left with only our clothes on our backs – we were lucky we got our passports.”

Many of the families The Daily Star spoke to said they had little hope that they would be able to return to their homes any time soon. There have been a number of reports of ISIS rehousing displaced Muslims in local buildings owned by Christians who have fled.

None of those interviewed said they had been able to find work in Lebanon, despite many having college degrees. They bemoaned that they had received little to no help from non-governmental organizations, the United Nations, or the church.

Zina, a 24-year-old engineer from Baghdad, and her sister, a qualified dentist, have found no work in the eight months they’ve been in Lebanon.

“We left [Iraq] because the situation is bad,” she explained with a rueful smile. “Christians are suffering so much, their livelihoods are at stake. Life is very difficult for them.”

The most important thing their community needed at the moment was aid, she said, whether monetary or in-kind. As she spoke, other Iraqis approached to echo the plea, their expressions anxious and weary.

“What we have is very little,” said one woman on the verge of tears. “There is no work for us here,” added another. “Please, we need help,” pleaded a third.

But although their calls for official assistance are likely to fall largely on deaf ears in a country that is already hosting well over a million Syrian refugees, help in one form or another is exactly what those gathered Sunday in Baabda had in mind.

While some of the worshippers at St. Raphael Cathedral were Iraqi, most appeared to be Lebanese who had turned up to demonstrate their support for their co-religionists.

Jacqueline Sarrouh had come from the nearby town of Hazmieh with her young son to pray for – and with – Iraqi Christians.

“We are here to participate in prayer with our Christian brothers,” Sarrouh said. “We already have friends here that we got to know.”

The Mass was led by Chaldean Bishop Michel Kassarji.

“Our struggle today is with futile, deviated ideologies that do not know the meaning of human pride nor freedom of belief nor difference of opinion,” he told a packed church. “History will record that Christians were forced out of their lands just because they were Christians.”

Rodrigue Khoury, leader of the Levant Party, who helped organize the event, said Christians in the Middle East “would never bow” and “would never forsake their faith.”

“We are not Lebanese expressing solidarity with Iraqis, we are one body shouting out,” he said.

Khoury’s speech was met with general enthusiasm, and was interrupted by an Iraqi Christian who stood up and exclaimed, “Long live Iraq!” to widespread applause.

But Father Denha said what was most needed was material support.

“We have helped them by welcoming them in the archbishopric and Michel [Kassarji] is trying to raise funds,” he said. “Some people have been donating clothes, but we would prefer if they could help financially by paying for rent or health care.”

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::