The current plight of the Rohingya refugees in Myanmar is getting a lot of press notice which is appropriate, yet the ongoing plight of Christians in the Middle East gets little attention. Like many of my fellow Knights of Columbus, I support the Knights fundraising efforts to aid the displaced Christians in that area and in the past have been involved in refugee relocation projects. As a consequence, I have been following their persecution and genocide for several years through various websites that advocate for their aid. Many organizations such as Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and Open Doors USA provide articles and updates on Christian persecution and genocide worldwide. There is an urgency that deserves our attention.
A frequent guest on the EWTN show “World Over Live” reporting on the Christian genocide and their current situation is Nina Shea who is the Director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. She recently provided her latest update and it offered a very bleak picture of the survival of not only individual Christians but for the faith in that region. Data was presented from the (ACN) recently released a report titled “Persecuted and Forgotten” and from the Hudson’s Institute’s report “How to Help Iraq’s Religious Minorities” that illustrates the crisis for Christian survival in the Middle East.
Christians in Iraq
The Christian population in Iraq has decreased by 80% and in Syria by 60%. They have either been killed or displaced to other areas. Many of the Christian towns in Iraq have been taken over by Iranian forces after they helped push out the ISIS fighters. In turn, they have established Iranian schools and mosques. As a consequence, many Christians fear coming back to their native villages. Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Sako was quoted at a recent meeting in Rome on the crisis as stating “…the hatred of the radical Muslim persecutors towards the Christians has driven them to wipe away our heritage, destroy our homes and even to remove us from their memory of Iraqi history.” The traditional Christian areas go back to the earliest years of Christianity.
Not only can these Christians not return to their native towns, they cannot go to the UN-sponsored refugee camps which are all populated by displaced Muslims and infiltrated ISIS sympathizers. Christians that have gone to those camps report being raped, kidnapped into the slave trade and killed by the Muslims. So, they have had to flee to places in northern Iraq and Kurdish areas for support and shelter. For the few who do try to return the sponsoring Christian relocation organizations have no say on what projects are undertaken and Christians are excluded from rebuilding contracts and jobs.
Lack of Media Attention for Genocide
Most of us are unaware of the depth of this critical situation. The Catholic media has and continues to report on this crisis but, unfortunately, has a much smaller readership even among Catholics. For the mainline media, it’s almost as if there is a news blackout.
An example is a lack of reporting on an international conference held this past October 11-13 hosted by the nation of Hungry. This was the first ever and only government-sponsored attempt to bring the seriousness of the Christian genocide situation to light. The conference titled “Finding the Appropriate Answers for a Long Neglected Crisis” presented the above-mentioned data along with a call for all nations but especially Europe to aid persecuted Christians. The Prime Minister of Hungry in his opening statements noted that “ It is time to liberate the issue from the shackles of political correctness”.
In many respects, his statement clearly defines a major reason for a lack of action in both Europe and America’s parts. We see a mainline media focused on the rights of people pertaining to gender or sexuality. Likewise, the plight of Muslim refugees to Europe has gained expansive media coverage and concern yet only limited coverage of Christian genocide and the rights of Christians. Whenever one attempts to address the persecution of Christians by Muslims the word “ hate speech and Islamaphobia” are used to neutralize the message.
Over the last several years since ISIS raised its ugly head the mainline media will report on Christian killings, beheadings, rape and the like by Muslim terrorists. However, they tend to receive a relatively short news cycle and the reporting of the genocide recedes into the “news memory”. These events are but the most blatant and visible examples of Christian persecution. However, the Open Doors organization in their 2016 report found that over 200 million Christians in over 50 countries suffer severe persecution, the most by any religious or ethnic group in the world. Muslim persecution including killings are seen globally in the Philippines, Sudan, Nigeria but especially across the Middle East. Even in so-called moderate Muslim countries like Egypt, the Coptic Christians have had their churches burned and bombed on a regular basis. Beyond the loss of life and a variety of other terrible acts against Christians the current urgency is that this ancient Christian culture is being erased from the birthplace of our faith. Is any of this being reported in the mainline media?
Lack of Response and Lack of Aid
While many Catholic organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Relief Services and Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) are providing the assistance they have been about the only entities responding and it is not nearly enough support. By and large, the international community has ignored the crisis. The ACN Report states “ Governments in the West and the UN failed to offer Christians…the emergency help they need as the genocide got underway. If Christian organizations had not filed the gap, the Christian presence could already have disappeared in Iraq….”. So the question to raise is what have the UN and the United States government failed to do?
A major source of U.S. aid has been that of providing funds to the United Nations for their refugee and relief efforts. The UN then disperses the funds for resettlement and rebuilding projects. The UN has provided very little if any support for the minority Christian refugees and has offered nothing to provide security for Christians in the UN-run camps.
Direct U.S humanitarian aid is provided through USAID. Since 2014 the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil (Iraq) has been the sole sponsor of care for most Christian survivors of ISIS genocide but it has not received any aid from the U.S. and specific requests have been repeatedly rejected by USAID. Nina Shea reports that in September of this year she spoke to State Department officials about this lack of aid and was dismissed because “the Church is taking such good care of them”.
The end result is that the U.S. State Department and USAID under both the past and current administrations appear to have a ”blind eye” to the situation disregarding the continuing struggle. Likewise, by not demanding any accountability to the funds provided the UN is a serious lack of oversight. Politically, it is enabling Iran to establish footholds in traditional Christian areas.
The bottom line is that local Christian church leaders, especially in Iraq and Syria feel they have been forgotten and left alone by the international community.
A Time to Act to Prevent Genocide
Carl Anderson, the Supreme Commander of the Knights of Columbus stated the” the United States as a uniquely moral obligation to aid the Iraqi Christians”. Hopefully, a stronger U.S. response is finally being developed. Vice President Pence recently announced that the current administration will provide direct assistance to those faith-based groups that are providing support as opposed to funneling U.S. funds through the UN. That is a major step forward, yet no direct aid has been forthcoming to date.
In addition, the House of Representatives has passed HR 390 – The Iraq Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act to 1) directly provide funds for refugee relief for victims of genocide and 2) hold the government responsible for ensuring such efforts are provided. However, it is uncertain when or if the Senate will take up and vote on this bill. While the Senate is “dillydallying”, Middle Eastern Christians are still being killed, persecuted, displaced and continue go without relief.
The challenge is how can we as individual Christians also accept that moral responsibility to support our persecuted brothers and sisters? We can first look to be better informed. One thing we can do is put the plight of persecuted Christians on our “radar screen” to pay attention to. Secondly is to actively seek those news sources that keep track of the situation. The Aid for the Church in Need (ACN), the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, EWTN’s World Over Live, and Open Doors USA are well-informed sources that produce timely updates. As we become more informed so we can, in turn, inform others in day to day conversations and news discussions. Contacting our Senators is one thing we can do to help move HR 190 forward.
We can actively mobilize the power of prayer not just as part of our individual intentions but to add those fellow persecuted Christians to parish prayer services and daily Mass prayer intentions. More specifically we can participate in the November 26th (Solemnity of Christ the King) day of prayer for persecuted Christians sponsored by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Finally, we can provide direct assistance by making donations to the Knights of Columbus Middle Eastern Christian relief fund, Catholic Relief Services, and the ACN Christian refugee efforts. We can be assured that funds provided those organizations will get directly to those in need.