Small tent cities are located on the parish grounds of many Chaldean Catholic churches in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
Thousands of Christian families and other religious minorities, even Shiite Muslims, continue to flee civil war in Syria and the violence of the Islamic State terrorist group — also known as ISIL or ISIS. The displaced individuals are depending on the local Catholic community for everything from temporary shelter, food, clothing and education to resettlement in other countries.
“The Church has really emphasized its role as a mother and welcomer of those who have fled,” said Stephen Colecchi, the director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. Colecchi joined a USCCB delegation that traveled to northern Iraq from Jan. 16-20 to assess the needs of displaced Christians and other individuals who are fleeing the violence in Iraq and Syria. The delegation’s members also visited Gaza in Palestine, and Jordan, where they met with Catholic relief workers and refugees.
“I found the visit profoundly moving,” Colecchi told Our Sunday Visitor.
“The purpose was to show solidarity with the Church in the Middle East and with the displaced Iraqi Christians,” said Kevin Appleby, the director of the USCCB Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs.
Appleby and Colecchi were joined by Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who is also chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace. Bishop Cantú celebrated Mass for the Iraqi Christians in Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan, which is located in northern Iraq.
“It’s a journey of encountering God, the poor and the dispossessed,” Bishop Cantú told Catholic News Services.
Roots of the problem
According to the United Nations, more than 800,000 Iraqi religious minorities have fled the Islamic State, the Sunni militant terrorist group that has conquered large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Islamic State militants have threatened Christians and other religious minorities to convert to Islam, pay taxes or be killed. The militants have taken over Christians’ home and destroyed their churches.
An international coalition led by the United States has targeted Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria, though fighting remains intense on the ground. Islamic State forces have retreated from Kobani, a Syrian town on the Turkish border, but other cities, including oil-rich Kirkuk in the Kurdish north, are at risk of falling to the militants.
Since mid-September, the Islamic State has captured more than 300 Kurdish villages and parts of Kobani while also driving out more than 200,000 Kurds.
The violence has forced thousands of Christians and others to leave their homes in search of refuge. Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil told Catholic News Service last month that about 60 Iraqi Christians, many of them professionals, are leaving the country every day because they believe “peace will not return.”
“There needs to be some end to the conflict. These people need to be able to go back home,” Appleby told OSV. “If the conflict is going to go on for another five years, then it’s going to be a problem.”
Families in need
The displaced families are facing tough conditions. Many are living in tents or other forms of temporary shelter without electricity, running water and insulating materials. Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Iraq in Kurdistan have been providing those families with insulation, carpets, blankets and kerosene heaters. The relief workers have also installed windows and plastic sheeting to shield the shelters from the cold winter weather.
“Pray as we encounter the many displaced and uprooted from their land and for the many responding to their needs in a beautiful way,” Bishop Cantú told Catholic News Services, referring to the work being done by Iraq’s Catholic parishes as well as a number of international Catholic charities. “Continue to tell their stories as an encounter with God.”
Colecchi said the families are lacking necessities. “Basic things to allow these families to be warm and to be fed,” Colecchi said. “These people need shelter. They need safety. They need warmth.”
Appleby added that many displaced Iraqis are also living inside a shopping mall in Irbil.
“Shelter is an issue,” Appleby said. “Also making sure they have proper access to health care and food is important. The issue is sustainability. Will they be able to go back to their homes? Will they even be able to integrate into Kurdish society? The other challenge is education. Are there enough slots for all the kids to go to school? Will they be able to integrate into the schools?”
Young children whose lives have been uprooted through violence are a particular concern to Catholic relief workers in the region. Colecchi said the USCCB delegation visited two “child-friendly” spaces in Kurdistan operated by Caritas Iraq and Catholic Relief Services. The sites are safe places were children can play, sing and learn while their parents are busy trying to get affairs in order.
“Through play, there were therapeutic effects that helped the children through the trauma that they had experienced,” Colecchi said.
More help needed
Appleby and Colecchi said the USCCB will be advocating for more direct assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development and other programs to help displaced people in Iraq and Syria. Colecchi said the bishops’ conference will also be calling for limited use of military force to protect the innocent, as well as humanitarian assistance.
Prior to joining Colecchi and Bishop Cantú in Gaza and Iraq, Appleby visited Amman, Jordan, where Caritas Jordan has helped place 2,000 Iraqi Christians.
Some of those families may be candidates to resettle in other countries. Christian Iraqis who have fled to Kurdistan are considered internally displaced peoples, not refugees, and so they have fewer opportunities to be resettled elsewhere.
Appleby said the bishops’ conference will be advocating that some of the Syrian families who fled into Kurdistan be resettled. Many of the Syrians who have fled into the region are at least part Kurdish and can speak the language.
“The Syrian children speak Kurdish and can better integrate, but the Syrians in (Irbil) have income challenges, and they hold the kids back from school and make them work. That’s a problem moving forward,” Appleby said.
The Holy See has called for as many Christians as possible to stay in the region given that the Christian community in Iraq is almost 2,000 years old. Most of those families want to stay in their ancestral homeland.
“We hope for that, too, but for the most vulnerable, we ought to resettle them for their own protection,” Colecchi said.
Said Appleby: “We’ll try to make sure they get enough support so they can remain and eventually go home.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.