Tom Gallagher: The desperate plight of Iraqi Christians

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Greenwich journalist Tom Gallagher speaking with a man named Dominic, an internally displaced Iraqi Christian waiting his turn to see a doctor at a health clinic in Erbil, Iraq. Photo: Tom Gallagher /National Catholic Reporter / Greenwich Time Contributed
Photo: Tom Gallagher /National Catholic Reporter
Greenwich journalist Tom Gallagher speaking with a man named Dominic, an internally displaced Iraqi Christian waiting his turn to see a doctor at a health clinic in Erbil, Iraq.

“Daesh is not human being,” said Dominic, a displaced Iraqi Christian husband and father of 11, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, during my recent trip to Erbil, Iraq. “Their minds are affected. All they want is to kill, kill, kill, war, war, war.”

And “kill and war” is what ISIS does. So much so that on March 17, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the killing of Christians, Yezidis and Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria to be genocide.

Kerry minced no words.

“Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions — in what it says, what it believes, and what it does Daesh captured and enslaved thousands of Yezidi women and girls — selling them at auction, raping them at will, and destroying the communities in which they had lived for countless generations.

ISIS has killed Christians “solely for their faith” and forced Christian women and girls into sexual slavery, said Kerry. Christians have been in Iraq since the first century.

Kerry came to the genocide determination based on a review of a “vast” amount of information gathered by the State Department, the U.S. intelligence community, and by outside groups, including New Haven, Conn.-based Knights of Columbus who funded and submitted a 280-page report documenting the genocide. (This writer is a member of the Knights of Columbus.)

On June 5, 2014, ISIS attacked the city of Mosul, triggering a massive exodus of Christians and religious minorities. Two months later ISIS attacked nearby city of Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq, and emptied it of some 50,000 Christians, who fled on foot, in cars and on donkeys and traveled 45 miles to the Ankawa district in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region. There they lived outdoors, some in tents, others finding shelter in abandoned half-built structures, a true humanitarian disaster.

One group of women religious, the Iraqi Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, who themselves were displaced from Mosul, Qaraqosh and surrounding villages, got busy organizing and handing out diapers and milk to young mothers and infants, and later creating an elementary school, religious education programs and offering hope to the people.

As a direct result of the ISIS attacks, the trauma of the flight from Qaraqosh directly contributed to the death of 23 elderly Dominican Sisters, ages 70 to 75, who died of heart failure.

In mid-April 2016, as an act of solidarity with the suffering Christians and other religious minorities, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, as chairman of the Board of Directors of the 90-year old New York City-based papal agency, Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), made a pastoral visit to Erbil and Dohuk, a town near the Turkish border. Dolan was joined by fellow CNEWA board member, Bishop William Murphy, of the Rockville Centre diocese on Long Island. I went as a journalist for the National Catholic Reporter .

Our small delegation visited multiple health clinics, displacement camps for Iraqi Christians and Yezidis, and met many religious sisters, including and priests who are on the front lines of caring for the displaced, as well as bishops of different religious traditions.

At each stop the displaced repeated the plea to be able to “just go home.” No one asked to come to the United States. Dolan understood the sentiment. “Sometimes we in the United States get this idea that the whole world wants to come here,” Dolan said. “The whole world wants to live in their own homes with security and stability and with some type of peace and prosperity. That’s what we’re hearing and America needs to know that,” Dolan said.

But what can be done to help the displaced Christians and Yezidis? For Dolan, it starts with solidarity in prayer for these suffering people. “Where else are we going to go, but to our faith?” said one woman we met. Dolan also recommends getting practical and becoming advocates. Supporting CNEWA and other charitable organizations with boots on the ground is one concrete step.

As for advocacy, Dolan says that he hears from Jewish leaders who say to him, “What’s taking you so long? Why are you afraid to advocate with the government on behalf of your people?” We need to do that, Dolan said.

Twenty-two months since Displacement Day (Aug. 6, 2014), Iraqi Christians are not going home any time soon. They are stranded in Ankawa, living a miserable existence in overcrowded 7-foot-wide containers in displacement camps, in need of more and better housing, medical, food, water, education and jobs. The Iraqi Dominican Sisters, priests and lay people, among others, are doing everything they can — with what little they have — to create normalcy from genocidal chaos.

When asked how lasting peace will come about, Dominic, the elderly gentleman waiting to see the doctor, said, “From the schools, churches, family and especially parents (teaching peace to the children),” he said.

This old, suffering Iraqi Christian is speaking to each of us.