Charity in the Land of the New Martyrs
6/1/2015Andrew J. Matt
Since the Knights of Columbus Christian Refugee Relief Fund launched in August 2014 to support those suffering persecution in Iraq and Syria, anti-Christian violence in the region has reached unimaginable dimensions. For more than a year, a campaign of religious cleansing by the Islamic State group has terrorized Christian communities and other religious minorities in the region. Confronted with a stark ultimatum convert to Islam, pay jizya (a submission tax), leave or be killed hundreds of thousands have fled their ancestral Christian homeland.
Shortly before Christmas 2014, Pope Francis dedicated a “Letter to the Christians in the Middle East,” expressing the Church’s closeness with them and remembering that their suffering “cries out to God and calls for our commitment to prayer and concrete efforts to help in any way possible.”
In response to the humanitarian crisis, more than $3 million has so far been distributed through the Order’s Christian Refugee Relief Fund to help persecuted Iraqis, Syrians and other refugees. The Supreme Council has also urged members and their families to pray for those affected.
“Our twin efforts are a concrete response to Pope Francis’ request for prayers and material assistance for those affected by this terrible persecution,” explained Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson. “We are asking our members, and all people of good will, to pray for those persecuted and to support our efforts to assist them by donating to this fund.”
So far, the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq, and the Melkite Greek Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo, Syria, have utilized donations from the fund. Other gifts have gone to assist the Holy See’s relief efforts in the Middle East, as well as to help Catholic communities suffering from the violent conflict in Ukraine, where the Order established a formal presence in 2013.
In his 2013 book The Global War on Christians, analyst John L. Allen Jr. explains that Christianity is stereotypically associated with the West, often as an oppressor. However, today’s demographic and social reality tells a strikingly different story. Not only do two-thirds of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians currently live outside the West, but they also tend to be poor and often belong to ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities. As a result, they have become increasingly convenient targets of violence.
On Easter Monday, April 6, Pope Francis asked for prayers for those “who are being persecuted, exiled, killed, decapitated for the sole reason that they are Christian.”
He added, “They are our martyrs of today, and they are so many, we could say that they are more numerous than in the early centuries.”
The estimated number of Christians being killed for their faith today varies widely, but according to Allen, “even the low-end estimate puts the number of Christians killed every day on the basis of religious hatred at twenty, almost one per hour.”
In order to escape persecution, many Christians have left areas where they have played a vibrant role in social, political and cultural life for centuries.
Worldwide, the number of people forced from their homes has surged past 50 million for the first time since World War II, according to a June 2014 report of the U.N. Refugee Agency.
Before the Iraq War in 2003, Christians in Iraq numbered approximately 1 million out of a population of 25 million. In September 2014, an estimated 300,000 Christians remained in the country. In the ancient city of Mosul, where some 60,000 Christians lived prior to 2003, today there are none.
Likewise, the combined effects of five years of civil war in Syria and the Islamic State onslaught there have been devastating. The war alone has left 220,000 people killed, 7.6 million internally displaced, and 3.9 million refugees. Whereas Christians used to make up 10 percent of Syria’s 22 million people prior to the war, Islamic State militants have ensured that large swaths of the country have now become “Christian-free zones.” In Aleppo, recently dubbed “the martyr city” by Pope Francis, Christians fear that they could suffer the same fate as Mosul.
SHELTER FOR IRAQI REFUGEES
In the face of the atrocities perpetrated against religious minorities and the widespread exodus of Christians from lands once evangelized by St. Paul and St. Thomas the Apostle, the Knights of Columbus Christian Relief Fund was launched in August 2014.
“It has shocked the conscience of the world that people are systematically being purged from the region where their families have lived for millennia simply for their faith,” the supreme knight said. “It is imperative that we stand in solidarity with them in defense of the freedom of religion and conscience, and provide them with whatever relief we can.”
In addition to the Supreme Council’s matching contribution of $1.1 million, the Christian Refugee Relief Fund has raised more than $2.5 million from individual Knights, K of C units and others. To date, $2 million of the fund has been donated to aid refugees in Iraq while $200,000 was donated to the Archdiocese of Aleppo in Syria. In a private audience at the Vatican Dec. 12, 2014, the supreme knight also presented Pope Francis with $400,000 to supplement the Holy See’s efforts in the Middle East.
In Erbil, a Kurdish-controlled city in northern Iraq, the aid has been put to use following the influx of some 125,000 Christian refugees from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain region.
“Shelter has been the first priority,” explained Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, a member of the Redemptorist order. “The Knights of Columbus donation is being used for a project of the Iraqi Catholic Bishops’ Conference to create permanent low-cost housing, to help Christians stay. More than 9,500 families are in need of suitable accommodation since they live in tents, trailer camps or residential units crammed with people.”
Archbishop Warda further emphasized that the housing initiative is also aimed at stemming the flow of desperate refugees trying to get out of the country.
“We are facing so many challenges, and emigration is one of them,” he said. “Today, there is no plan to liberate the towns in the Nineveh Plain and let them return to their homes, churches and jobs. After 10 months, many pay huge amounts of money to get an entry visa to Europe.”
Archbishop Warda praised the heroic faith of his people when they were confronted by militants of the Islamic State group, which is known locally as Daesh.
“Daesh gave them three options: Islam, jizya or leave,” he said. “So they preferred to leave with nothing rather than lose their faith in Christ or lose their dignity by paying the jizya. I feel really proud of my people.”
AID FOR SYRIA AND BEYOND
Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and its commercial hub, has been a major battleground in the civil war, which has claimed the lives of at least 3,600 civilians in that city alone. Since 2011, more than one-third of Aleppo’s Christians some 40,000 people have left the city. Amid the chaos, Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart has put the Christian Refugee Relief Fund aid to multiple uses, including distribution of food and medical supplies.
“We have also been able to give a monthly stipend to 480 fathers of families who have no income because the industry and businesses have been destroyed,” Archbishop Jeanbart said. “In addition, it was possible to give them some money so they could heat their homes this winter, and to give scholarships to 1,000 students to help them with schooling.”
In order to work toward a larger goal, namely rebuilding and restoring homes and businesses so that Christian families can stay in Aleppo, the archbishop has launched an initiative titled “Build to Stay.”
“The present stage includes the professional training of carpenters, ironworkers, electricians and plumbers,” he explained. “The second stage involves providing support to artisans and business people with small loans, so that they can pick up their work again and not rely on alms.”
If this initiative works, Archbishop Jeanbart added, the model can be applied throughout Syria and beyond to help ensure that Christians remain a permanent presence in the Holy Land.
“I thank the Knights of Columbus for being close to us, for their awareness of what we are suffering and for helping their brothers and sisters in Syria and the Middle East,” he said. “We will never, ever forget what you have done for us.”
In February, donations from the Christian Refugee Relief Fund were also sent to provide housing, food and medicine to refugee children and families suffering from the civil upheaval in Ukraine. Gifts of $200,000 each went to Ukrainian Greek Catholic Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev and Roman Catholic Archbishop Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki of Lviv, both of whom are members of the Order.
“Our support is meant to further enable the bishops of Ukraine as they help their people and implement the Holy Father’s call to aid those most in need,” said Supreme Knight Anderson.
Christian refugee communities in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere remain in great need of support. In addition to solidarity in prayer, Knights and their families are invited to contribute to the Knights of Columbus Christian Refugee Relief Fund, which continues to collect donations.
For further updates and information about how to donate, visit the newly launched Web page: kofc.org/refugees.
ANDREW J. MATT is managing editor of Columbia.