Christians fleeing northern Iraq are ‘really afraid,’ archbishop says

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — Thousands of Iraqi Christians fled shelling by extremist militants and were seeking refuge in the neighboring autonomous Kurdistan region, said Catholic leaders in northern Iraq, who expressed grave concern for the people’s fate.

Iraqi refugees line up to receive free food inside the Khazer camp on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq, June 29. Archbishop Bashar Matte Warda of Irbil told Catholic New Service by telephone June 28 the situation was going “from bad to worse.” (CNS photo/Stringer, Reuters)

“It’s going from bad to worse,” Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Matte Warda of Irbil told Catholic New Service by telephone June 28. “Over 40,000 Christians have left the villages of Qaraqosh and Karamlish over the past three days. They are really, really afraid.”

The archbishop said most of those who fled left with just the clothes on their backs, while some, who were still in their pajamas, a sign of their panic and desperation, narrowly escaped after militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant laid siege to Christian villages outside of Mosul.

As violence continued to plague Syria and Iraq, Pope Francis pleaded for international action to promote dialogue, and he urged Catholics to pray particularly for Iraqi Christians forced to flee in late June.

“The news coming from Iraq is very painful, unfortunately,” the pope said June 29 after reciting the Angelus with visitors in St. Peter’s Square. “I join the bishops of the country appealing to government leaders that, through dialogue, national unity could be preserved and war avoided.”

“I am close to the thousands of families, especially Christians, who have had to leave their homes and are in serious danger,” the pope said.

Iraq was thrown back into crisis in mid-June after thousands of armed members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant moved from Syria through much of northern Iraq, killing both Muslims and Christians. On June 29 they proclaimed a “caliphate,” an Islamic state led by a religious leader, across the territories they had captured.

At his early morning Mass in the chapel of his residence June 30, Pope Francis again urged prayers for Christians facing persecution, especially in the Middle East.

“There also are Christians chased out in an elegant way with white gloves,” he said. “This, too, is persecution.”

Meanwhile, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad pleaded June 30 with Catholics outside Iraq to be careful accepting without verifying stories claiming the violence is being perpetrated “against Christians in a selective manner. I repeat that up until now, there have been no attacks aimed at those who bear the name of Christ. The Christians are sharing the anguish and suffering with their Muslim brothers and sisters.”

As Iraq faces the real possibility of war and being torn apart, “every manipulative alarmism” responds to a desire to play on people’s fears and “therefore, ends up aggravating the danger,” he told the Vatican’s Fides news agency.

Earlier, Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Moshe of Mosul told Fides that more than 90 percent of the 40,000 residents of Qaraqosh had fled. The majority of the town’s inhabitants are Syriac Catholics.

A lack of action on the part of the international community, he said June 28, is “complicit with the crimes” being committed against innocent civilians caught in the path of the militants.

Archbishop Warda told CNS that about 15,000 of the displaced people were taking shelter in 14 schools in the Kurdistan region, where temperatures were 108 degrees F (42 degrees C). Others were sleeping in the streets due to the extreme heat.

The Save the Children humanitarian agency warned that thousands more families were expected to arrive from other villages seeking sanctuary. It said most arrive with almost nothing and need emergency supplies of food, water and shelter.

Christians have fled Iraq in massive numbers since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and its aftermath. The country’s Christian community was estimated at 800,000 to 1.2 million people before the 2003 war that unleashed a wave of sectarian violence, but the current Christian population is thought to be less than half that number.

Many Christians took refuge in the Kurdistan region, where there was thought to be greater tolerance for other religions.

“We are trying to convince them not to leave,” Archbishop Warda said. ‘But they told me, ‘OK, bishop, who will secure our life …? We have no army to protect us.’”

“We are afraid that things will continue this way,” he said. “The people are worried. They are afraid. As bishops, we have urged all the parties involved to calm down.”

Syriac Bishop Barnaba Yousif Habash of Our Lady of Deliverance of Newark, New Jersey, told CNS June 27 that he had spoken with family members after forces overran Qaraqosh. He said he heard the screams and cries of people in the background.

“There is no hope there,” he said.

He implored the United States and European nations to act to protect minority Christians in northern Iraq.

“If America truly believes in the rights of the people, the rights of the human being, they should use the same power to put peace first and defend people and protect the life of others,” he said.