Photo by Michael Swan.

Iraqi Christians rally in Toronto for persecuted brethren at home

By 
  • August 11, 2014

TORONTO - Dressed in shirts that proclaimed “I am Christian, I am Iraqi,” carrying signs pleading for protection of their families still in Iraq, 5,000 Iraqi Christians and their supporters marched on Queen’s Park August 10 to draw attention to the plight of their brethren back home.

Led by Eastern-rite Catholic and Orthodox clergy, protesters marched silently from Front and Bay Streets through downtown Toronto to the provincial legislature to draw attention to the current situation Iraqi Christians and other minorities face as Islamists force Christians out of their ancestral homeland in Iraq. Many of the protesters were recent immigrants with families still in Iraq. 

Their relatives have been driven from their homes and told to convert or die by the advancing forces of the Islamic State or ISIS. ISIS forces took over Mosul in early June, declared a caliphate June 29 and then ordered Christians and others to convert or die.

The protesters wore a “nun” symbol, the Arabic letter “n” used to mark Christian homes, businesses and institutions as “Nazarenes” and therefore liable to be killed or have their property seized.

On the front lawn of Queen’s Park, Cardinal Thomas Collins greeted the crowd with prayer for oppressed Christians and a call for Muslim leaders to speak up against the Islamic State’s abuse of religion.

The Archdiocese of Toronto has welcomed 820 refugees from Iraq over the past three years, but most of those had been refugees since shortly after the 2003 American-led invasion to topple former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. 

Protest organizers were asking the Canadian government to speed up the refugee process for a new wave of threatened and displaced Iraqis. Iraqi refugees come to Canada only three or four years after they are told they have a sponsor waiting for them in Canada, said protest organizers.

Collins has also appealed to the government to “expand available spaces for Iraqi Christians seeking refuge in our country, and to remove any bureaucratic impediments to their reception.” 

The Assyrian Christian minority in Iraq constitutes the aboriginal population of the country. Ethnic cleansing of the original people of Iraq should concern the entire world community, said  Assyrian Chaldean Syriac Student Union president Sherly Kyorkis.

The international community has a responsibility to create a safe haven for Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans and others in the plain of Nineveh, Kyorkis said.

Pope Francis has named a personal envoy to monitor treatment of Christians and other minorities at the hands of ISIS militants.

“Our brothers and sisters are persecuted, they are pushed out, forced to leave their homes without the opportunity to take anything with them. To these families and to these people I would like to express my closeness and my steadfast prayer. Dearest brothers and sisters so persecuted, I know how much you suffer, I know that you are deprived of everything. I am with you in your faith in Him who conquered evil!” the Pope said in his Aug. 7 angelus address.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Archbishop Paul-André Durocher echoed the Pope’s call for solidarity with a letter to Canada’s bishops. Durocher wants the Canadian government to make it easier for Canadian communities to sponsor refugees, wants Canada to step up international diplomatic efforts on behalf of Iraqi minorities and world governments to stand up for freedom of conscience and religion.

Durocher also urged dioceses to collect funds for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association of Canada and Aid to the Church in Need, all of which have humanitarian relief efforts in the region.

CNEWA Canada announced an emergency campaign to provide support to Iraqi bishops and clergy who are providing water, food, medicine and pastoral care to Christians fleeing ISIS on foot.

The Archdiocese of Toronto will host an interfaith “Prayer for Peace” service with Collins at 3 p.m. Sept. 7 in St. Paul’s Basilica.

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