Iraq’s Christians still in dire need of help

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Iraqis forced to flee from advancing Islamic State militants wait in line for humanitarian aid at a camp for displaced people in Zakho, Iraq. One year after the Islamic State launched its initial onslaught, refugees remain in poverty and chaos. CNS photo/Darek Delmanowicz, EPA
By Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News
OTTAWA – One year after the Islamic State’s invasion of Iraq forced more than 120,000 Iraqi Christians to flee ancient homelands with little except their clothes, most continue to live in poverty and chaos.

People have moved from a “chaotic emergency a year ago to an ongoing level of poverty, despair and need for commodities on a daily basis,” said Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada national director Carl Hétu. People have little privacy, no running water or individual bathrooms, he said. Some live in containers like portable school classrooms that may have one window, and are extremely hot in the summer heat that can reach 50C or cold in winter, he said.

Aid to the Church in Need marked the Aug. 6 anniversary of the Islamic State’s initial onslaught with a renewed fundraising campaign. ACN, through its donors worldwide, has contributed 58 per cent of the more than $12 million directed to the Iraqi Christian Aid Committee. CNEWA has raised an estimated $7.2 million, with approximately $750,000 coming from Canadian donors.

ACN reports 8.2 million Iraqis are in need of assistance and 3.2 million are internally displaced.

On Aug. 4, the Knights of Columbus announced a major fundraising and awareness campaign at its 133rd international convention in Philadelphia. Knights CEO Carl Anderson said the new campaign aimed to “expose the crimes against humanity that are being committed.”

“It is time for a season of truth about what is happening to Christians and other minorities,” Anderson said.

In an interview from Philadelphia Aug. 6, Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, C.Ss.R., of Erbil, Iraq, said that in his diocese alone there are “12,700 families who were forcibly displaced from their homes and towns last year.” Erbil is in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Among them are Chaldeans, Catholics, Syrian Catholics and Orthodox, who have arrived with their bishops, said Warda, adding they all await liberation of their towns and villages.

“They are not being shown any sign,” he said. “This is a big worry.”

Hétu said those who have been able to return to liberated areas have found their homes, churches and businesses demolished. Some returned to find their homes booby-trapped and were killed, he said.

“(Islamic State) has basically destroyed all traces of Christianity in those villages,” he said. “People still live in fear, live with the unknown, and that creates a sense of despair.”

Warda said priorities are shelter, education and health care. If families have a decent place to live it increases the likelihood they will remain in the area and not seek to leave, he said.

“We should be able to do something to preserve the presence of the Christians.”

But the hosting bishops are very concerned about the peoples’ spiritual needs, he said. Each refugee community has priests and religious sisters “to accompany them.”

“We started reflecting about the providence of God in this crisis,” Warda said.

“It’s immense. The help and the love we have seen and experienced have strengthened the faith of the victims.”

All the funds raised by the churches or agencies like the Knights, CNEWA and ACN go directly to the people in need, he said. The groups generally work through the bishops.

“We do not centralize the aid that comes, but we ask always to be informed so as not to duplicate funds to one community or camp or group of refugees and neglect the others,” he said. “We have teams of people who have been trained to give aid directly to the concerned people.”

ACN Canada head of information Robert Lalonde said three new projects have been approved. One is to support priests of the Syrian Catholic Archdiocese of Mosul who fled to Erbil after the occupation of Mosul and Nineveh. Another project is earmarked for Syria where the civil war continues and a third for Iraqi refugees in Lebanon.