ROME — During Holy Week Christians around the world recall Christ’s suffering for them. In the Middle East, they also recall their suffering for Christ.
One widely-quoted story illustrates the point. A Christian woman named Kahlia from Nineveh has told of her experience with ISIS. When the terrorists ordered her at gunpoint to convert or die, she told her captors that since Jesus had died for her, she was willing to die for him.
“Our people were evangelized by the Apostles and are among the earliest communities in the Church, but for centuries persecution has meant that it is not easy being Christian in this part of the world,” said Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, whose archdiocese became ground zero for refugees fleeing ISIS in 2014.
Two major genocides – perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks during and after World War I and by ISIS during this decade – were the worst, but by no means the only persecution that these communities faced.
While the situation in Syria is still somewhat fluid, post-ISIS Iraq is easier to analyze. In Iraq, the Christian community has plummeted from about 1.5 million before 2003, to something less than 200,000 today. ISIS played a major role in that decline.
ISIS’s crimes against Christians, Yazidis (another ancient, regional, non-Muslim faith community) and Shi’a Muslims have been designated as genocide by the U.S. State Department under both presidents Obama and Trump.
Catholics in the United States are deeply concerned about the issue of Christian persecution, according to a poll released this month by Aid to the Church in Need.
“More than 60 percent of U.S. Catholics say that the Church must play a hands-on role in providing emergency and humanitarian aid to persecuted Christians around the world,” according to ACN, and nearly six in 10 say that they are “very concerned” about the plight of persecuted Christians.
Some of that concern – in Iraq at least – relates to new threats to the communities there.
Carl Anderson, the CEO of the Knights of Columbus recently traveled to Iraq and wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week that ISIS’s eviction from the land it controlled in the heavily-Christian Nineveh region of Iraq does not mean that Christians have unfettered access.
[The Knights of Columbus are a principal sponsor of Crux.]
Iranian-backed militias have swept in, he explained, and a program of Shi’a colonization of historically Christian towns has commenced. This colonization effort and militia’s hostile behavior now threatens both government and private investment in the area, threatening the viability of Christian and Yazidi communities returning home.
The Knights – who have also signed an MOU with USAID to coordinate work together in the region – have been major sponsors of Christian communities throughout the country. Aid to the Church in Need also has been a major supporter of these communities.
The concern has gone beyond the Catholic community, with Christians of many denominations speaking out and the Trump administration focusing on persecuted religious minorities in the region since 2017.
Speaking at Ave Maria University, Vice President Mike Pence, who has been the administration’s point person on the issue, said: “At President Trump’s direction, for the first time ever, the United States of America is providing direct support to Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East to rebuild their communities.” He added: “As I stand before you today, we’ve already committed more than $340 million in aid.”
Warda applauded the vice president’s efforts, telling Crux that he has met with Pence several times and believes that he “cares deeply about this issue.”
“The Americans have done some very important work, especially on rebuilding infrastructure in Nineveh,” he said.
At the same time, the archbishop said some people have misunderstood what is actually happening in terms of American aid. Rumors have spread saying Warda – and the Church – have been the recipient for huge amounts of government money.
“People think that the Church, or our archdiocese, has directly received hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid, and they are demanding that we explain how we spent it,” said the archbishop.
“We are discussing some aid options and investment possibilities with the Americans, and I am hopeful on that front, but those spreading or repeating these rumors should understand that the only U.S. government aid directly received so far by our archdiocese – or those of Mosul and Nineveh – is about $350,000 in rubble-clearing equipment destined for Nineveh.”
Warda said that questions on the precise projects the U.S. government has funded should be directed to USAID, not to him.
“The fact is that almost all of the aid we have received has been private, from groups such as the Knights and ACN, and this private aid we have received has assisted not only refugees and IDPs here in Kurdistan, but those in Nineveh also.”
Even more than money though, Warda says his community needs prayers. “We need prayers, and we need to know we are not forgotten by our brothers and sisters in the West.”