Carl Hetu

Canada has a role to play in a lasting Mideast peace, CNEWA says

By 
  • November 28, 2014

OTTAWA - Iraq’s once-thriving Christian community has been reduced by 85 per cent in the past decade and is still “on the run,” Carl Hetu told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee. 

The national director of the Canadian office of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association said Iraq’s Christian population, which once numbered 1.5 million, is now about 200,000. Of those, 150,000 are currently fleeing Islamic State forces that are trying to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region, Hetu said as representatives from CNEWA testified on the plight of Middle East Christians Nov. 20. 

Christians have played a major role in the Middle East in terms of job creation, education and the provision of social services, Hétu said. Over the centuries, they have always found “a way to survive and thrive.” But ISIS sees Christians as representing the West and is targeting them, and “their value is being eliminated.” 

CNEWA’s offices in Lebanon, Jerusalem and Amman have had to shift their program orientation from development and service to emergency aid to help the local populations survive, he said. 

Donor fatigue is one problem facing the agency, he said. Initially people were extremely generous, but after three years, some of the same donors are tapped out. 

“People are starving more now than they were three years ago.” 

Hétu stressed the importance of a Canadian government role in helping to bring a lasting peace to the Middle East that goes well beyond Iraq’s borders. In addition to 1.8 million people displaced within Iraq because of instability and ISIS, some three million Syrians have become refugees as that country enters the fourth year of civil war. One million Iraqis had fled to Syria before the civil war started, he said. Now they have fled again, to Lebanon and Jordan. 

The Israel-Palestine conflict needs addressing as well, he said, noting half a million Palestinian refugees live in camps in Lebanon, and 1.5 million live in Jordan. 

“How can a country of six million sustain that?” he said of Lebanon. 

“Lebanon could fall,” he said, noting ISIS had made incursions into the country, but so far they have been resisted. 

He urged a “multi-faceted approach.” 

“ISIS doesn’t want to negotiate,” he said. “They are brutal and don’t want to be stopped.” 

In addition to a military option — Canada has joined a multinational force to try to stop ISIS advances — the government needs to provide humanitarian aid so people can wait things out and eventually rebuild their lives, he said. 

The region also needs help in developing civil society and building “pluralistic stability,” said Fr. Elias Mallon, an expert on Middle East affairs via video conference from CNEWA’s New York City office. 

The priest explained how the region, with its extraordinary diversity, had been kept under control by authoritarian regimes. Now the multi-confessional, multi-ethnic region is falling apart. The region may not end up looking like the countries “we inherited” after the major powers divided up the Ottoman Empire and drew the boundaries. 

“A lot of effort is going into supporting the status quo ante which is just not sustainable,” Mallon said. 

The military action can provide a space, a quiet opportunity for a solution that will include infrastructure and the building of civil society, including education, he said. 

Until people in the Middle East understand themselves as equal citizens with an equal stake, it will remain “every man for himself,” he said. 

“The concept of citizen is lacking in the Middle East. Democracy without notions of citizenship results in the tyranny of the majority.” 

Even though France was devastated by the Second World War, it could rebuild because notions of citizenship and civil society already existed, said Mallon. 

Hétu noted the presence in the region of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, of Yazidi who practice a religion older than Christianity, and of Christians who can trace their roots back to St. Thomas. It is the cradle of monotheism and the cradle of civilization. Added to religious diversity are myriad tribal affiliations, he said. 

“What we see happening is the destruction of that diversity,” he said. “Anyone not thinking like ISIS will be eliminated.” 

CNEWA focuses on helping Christians, he said, because they have been “the focus of hatred and crimes over the past 10 years.” 

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