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‘On the Edge Between Life and Death’

3/1/2017

by Doreen Abi Raad

Congressman Chris Smith’s mission to Iraq and new emergency relief legislation offer hope to persecuted Christians

Iraqis attend Christmas Eve Mass

Iraqis attend Christmas Eve Mass at the Assyrian Orthodox church of Mar Shimoni, in Bartella, Iraq, Dec. 24, 2016. Bartella, once home to thousands of Assyrian Christians, emptied in August 2014 when it fell to ISIS. Iraqis retook the town during the U.S.-backed offensive in October 2016. Photo by Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto/Sipa USA via AP

Expelled from their ancestral lands in 2014 by militants of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Daesh), more than 70,000 Christians – nearly one-third of all remaining Christians in Iraq – are still in exile in Erbil, in the Kurdistan region. The displaced community saw a ray of hope when, for the first time, a U.S. congressman came to visit them just before Christmas.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a leading human rights lawmaker who has chaired nine congressional hearings on atrocities in Iraq and Syria since 2013, arrived in Erbil Dec. 20, 2016, on a mission to witness firsthand the plight of the displaced Christians.

“When I went to Erbil, temperatures had already begun to drop below freezing, and the risk of lifethreatening illnesses was on the rise,” Smith said of the visit. “U.S. action is more critical than ever to ensure these genocide survivors receive the assistance needed for their basic survival.”

Invited by Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil, Smith met with refugee families, local Catholic and Orthodox bishops as well as government and NGO officials. Knights of Columbus staff helped to organize the trip and accompanied Smith during the visit. For the past two years, the Order’s Christian Refugee Relief Fund has provided aid to the displaced community, which has been denied humanitarian assistance by the U.S. government and the United Nations.

Following the December visit, Rep. Smith, together with Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), introduced legislation in the newly convened 115th U.S. Congress to provide emergency relief to persecuted Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities, as well as to ensure accountability for perpetrators.

“This bill is timely because just last month I saw in Iraq the lack of humanitarian aid for Christian genocide survivors,” Smith said Jan. 10, the day the bill was introduced. “They are at risk from freezing winter temperatures and require emergency help.”

LISTENING TO SURVIVORS

During his visit to Iraq, Smith made it a priority to visit Ashti 2, the largest Christian refugee center in Erbil, to meet with displaced families who had survived the horrific summer of 2014. It was such a priority, in fact, that when the U.S. government was unable to provide protection for Smith because of a flight schedule change, he risked going to the center guarded by the Zerevani, Kurdish paramilitary police instead.

Ashti 2 is an enclave of prefabricated containers housing a total of 6,000 refugees. Each family dwelling is about 50 square feet.

The congressman heard firsthand from families about the terror and trauma they experienced in escaping ISIS. One family shared with him how persecution has followed them. After being evicted from Mosul, they settled in Qaraqosh, where they thought they would be safe from terrorists. They never imagined that one night, in August 2014, they would be among some 50,000 Christians expelled from the town by ISIS.

Initially, when ISIS militants uprooted them from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain region of Iraq, some 125,000 Christians fled to the Kurdistan region. Many have since gone to neighboring countries — Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — with the aim of emigrating to Western nations. Some made their way to Europe, often at great peril, and some families have been resettled.

Congressman Smith was moved by the deep faith of the Christians he met, a faith that has persevered and grown despite the atrocities they suffered and the hardships they still endure each day.

“Every family I met told me their faith was stronger and more steadfast than before their suffering at the hands of ISIS,” Smith recalled. “They said they saw the hands of Christ and the Blessed Mother in the life-saving help they received from the Archdiocese of Erbil. These Christians who lost their lands and their homes totally trusted in God’s providence.”

Smith was also shown pictures of how the towns and villages — emptied of Christians — look now after having been recently liberated from the Islamic State: homes destroyed and gutted; churches and graves desecrated; streets empty as ghost towns, still littered with bombs and other remnants of the militants’ terrorist reign. Many areas are still booby-trapped. The shocking images of the devastation send a clear and disturbing message: The dream of returning home remains far out of reach for the displaced.

“The Archdiocese of Erbil has saved the lives of tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities who escaped ISIS with its food, shelter and medical care,” Smith said, adding that the archdiocese also serves Yazidis and Muslims who fled ISIS, “which is typical for a Catholic entity.”

Much of the archdiocese’s aid has been made possible by the Knights of Columbus Christian Refugee Relief Fund, which launched in August 2014. To date, more than $12 million has been raised to provide housing, food, medical aid, education and general relief to persecuted communities in places like Iraq and Syria.

“But because the U.S. government and the United Nations have so far failed to support this life-saving work of the archdiocese, these genocide survivors continue to hang on the edge between life and death,” Smith said. “Despite the generous support from groups like the Knights of Columbus, the archdiocese is regularly in a chronic funding crisis.”

Rep. Chris Smith visits with Iraqi Church leaders

Rep. Chris Smith visits with Iraqi Church leaders (left to right) Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil, Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Moshe of Mosul, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Timotheos Mousa Al-Shamani of St. Matthew’s Monastery in northern Iraq, and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Nikodimos Daoud Sharaf of Mosul. Photo by Stivan Shany/Archdiocese of Erbil

WAITING AND PRAYING FOR AID

Congressman Smith said that many of those he met in Erbil — including displaced people and clergy — openly expressed their hope that the new U.S. administration will be more open to helping them than the last.

The Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, who also had to flee ISIS and seek refuge in Erbil, told the lawmaker, “So often, concern for Christians is minimized. I am so happy, because you are the first American who has come to ask about the Christians. We pray that President Trump will help us. We are the last people to speak the Aramaic language. Without help, we are finished.”

In 2002, there were as many as 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Now, fewer than 250,000 Christians remain in the country.

“There are lobbies in Washington making decisions on behalf of Christians here, and those decisions have an effect,” Archbishop Warda said. In addition to humanitarian assistance, the archbishop stressed the necessity of “equal rights” for non-majority groups like the Christians and an end to corruption in the Iraqi government.

In his 2016 Christmas message from Beirut, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan said, “We need the honest and courageous solidarity of elected people like Congressman Smith to speak up on behalf of Christians and other minorities who have been oppressed, abused and uprooted by jihadists who kill innocents in the name of their religion.”

A keynote speaker at the last year’s Supreme Convention and a member of St. Rose of Lima Council 6209 in Union City, N.J., the patriarch spoke passionately about the dire situation of Christians in the Middle East.

“We keep encouraging our uprooted Christian communities to return and witness to the redeeming power of the Lord Jesus, among a pluralist society,” Patriarch Younan told Columbia. “This, however, will not be possible, unless the international family of nations, most particularly the new administration in the United States, promotes reforms to the constitutions of the Middle Eastern countries that require the application of the Charter of Human Rights for all citizens without any exception; assures a safe zone in the Plain of Nineveh; and embarks immediately on the work restoring the infrastructures, schools, hospitals, houses and churches in the villages and cities there.”

Shortly after his mission to Erbil, Rep. Smith introduced with Rep. Eshoo the bipartisan bill to provide emergency relief to survivors of genocide and ensure accountability for perpetrators. Titled the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017 (H.R. 390), the measure was an enhanced version of the Smith-Eshoo bill (H.R. 5961) they had introduced in September 2016.

Among its key provisions, H.R. 390 directs the U.S. government to implement the following policies: support entities that are effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based entities; support entities that are conducting criminal investigations into perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Iraq and Syria; create a Priority Two (P-2) designation that Christians and other genocide survivors from religious and ethnic minority communities are of “special humanitarian concern” and therefore able to access an overseas application interview for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program without needing a referral from the U.N.; vet P-2 refugee applicants like any other Iraqi or Syrian refugee applicant and not admit them to the U.S. unless they have cleared this vetting.

“I thank Chairman Smith for his passionate leadership on this issue,” said Rep. Eshoo Jan. 10. “And I look forward to working with him and all my colleagues in Congress to quickly move this aid package and bring relief to those who continue to suffer.”

Numerous organizations, including the Knights of Columbus, In Defense of Christians, Aid to the Church in Need USA and others, have expressed their support of the bill, which promises to provide concrete aid to those in dire need.

“My hope for the new administration, my fondest hope,” Smith said, “is that it provide immediate life-saving aid to the displaced Christian community in Erbil.”

To donate to the Knights of Columbus Christian Refugee Relief Fund, visit christiansatrisk.org.


DOREEN ABI RAAD writes from Beirut, Lebanon.