An Iraqi Christian refugee holds a 12-day-old baby in Ankawa, Iraq, Aug. 7. CNS photo/Sahar Mansour

Catholic agencies make urgent appeal to help Iraqi Christians

  • August 12, 2014

OTTAWA - Canadian Catholic charitable agencies have put out urgent appeals for assistance to help Iraqi Christians fleeing for their lives from Islamist extremists from the Islamic State (ISIS}.

Christians who had fled Mosul in northern Iraq to Qaraqosh have been forced into the mountains and the desert now that Qaraqosh has fallen to ISIS. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, CNEWA Canada and Aid to the Church in Need Canada are all responding to the crisis.

Thousands of people, including other minority groups, have been caught between Qaraqosh and Erbil, a city deeper in the Kurdish-controlled territory of Iraq. Those fleeing have been caught in a mountainous area “surrounded by ISIS with no access to food, or water and nothing,” said CNEWA Canada national director Carl Hétu.

The U.S. army has been bombarding the area so stranded people can go to a secure place, he said. Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims are also fleeing the ISIS extremists, who are Sunni.

“There are some barbaric acts being done on innocent civilians,” he said. “Those people need to be stopped.”

“The Islamic State will kill anyone who disagrees with them whether Muslims or non-Muslims,” said Marie-Claude Lalonde, national director of Aid to the Church in Need Canada. “It’s not only the Christians who are suffering.”

The Syriac and Chaldean Churches are working together to organize aid for 80,000 people who have made it to Erbil, said Hétu. They were sleeping outside, near churches.

“The Christians, horrified and panicked, fled their villages and houses with only their clothes on their backs,” said Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I, according to a CNEWA news release. “Many are on foot under a searing summer heat towards Kurdish cities looking for protection... they are facing a human catastrophe and risk a real genocide. “We appeal with sadness and pain to the conscience of all people of good will... to save these innocent persons from death.”

About 100,000 people were living in Qaraqosh, of whom 90 per cent are Christians, said Lalonde. Qaraqosh was housing refugees from Mosul and from earlier Christian persecutions around the country, housing people who had fled there for safety over the past 15 years.

“For most of them, it’s the second time they lose everything,” Lalonde said. “And we’re not talking about those Iraqis who fled to Syria and are now caught in the Syrian conflict.”

The UN has started building two refugee camps for Christians in Erbil and Douk, another town in the Kurdish region, Hétu said. They will put up 5.000 tents. The most urgent needs include medical care, he said. Many are suffering from dehydration after the walk in desert. They lack food, water and have experienced the trauma of leaving.

Development and Peace is working with its Caritas Internationalis partners in the region, said deputy director of in-Canada programs Ryan Worms. 

“So far we didn’t receive a specific request from Caritas Iraq,” said Worms. “We are waiting until they finish their assessment and for them to tell us what the need is in terms of financial support.”

But Worms stressed that for Caritas Iraq, “even for its staff, it’s very dangerous, very stressful work they are doing.” It’s similar to the plight of colleagues from Caritas Jerusalem working in Gaza, he said.

Caritas Iraq is helping about 2,500 families with emergency aid, food, water and medicines and providing facilities to welcome them and help alleviate trauma, Worms said. Caritas Lebanon and Caritas Turkey are also talking about increased numbers of Iraqi refugees fleeing to those countries. 

“We’re monitoring their situation, waiting to respond to their call,” Worms aid. “We already worked with them in the past regarding the Iraq crisis in the year 2003.”

Caritas, CNEWA and Aid to the Church in Need are all charities approved by the Catholic Church and they often work together and with the same partners. “We are collaborating on the ground,” said Hétu. “All the aid is much appreciated.”

Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, has called on Catholics to pray, exert political pressure and give generously to help Iraqi Christians. In an Aug. 8 letter, Durocher stressed the urgent appeal from the Holy Father to pray for peace in the region and outlined some of ways dioceses across Canada have already been praying for persecuted Christians there and making other efforts to help.

“In addition, some dioceses are inviting Catholics collaborate with other Canadians in urging members of Parliament to make the Middle East a priority for the Government of Canada,” he wrote. “These priorities include doing more to provide Canadian emergency and reconstruction assistance, making it easier for Canadian communities to accept refugees, Canadian participation in international efforts to foster justice and peace in the region, and insisting that the world's governments and societies respect freedom of conscience and religion as well as the rights of minorities.”

The Canadian government has stepped up humanitarian assistance in recent days. On Aug. 10, International Development Minister Christian Paradis announced an additional $5 million aid package to address the humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq. The aid will go towards food distribution, hygiene kits, cooking materials, blankets, tents and medical supplies. It will also help in emergency repairs to water and sanitation systems. Half of the funds will go to Canadian partner charities working in the region: The Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement; the Mercy Corps and Save the Children Canada. The rest will go to other partners, a government news release said.

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