ERBIL, IRAQ —The top Catholic official in Iraq says the current US-led bombing campaign will not dislodge the radical Islamic State, and he is pleading for a stronger response from the international community to ensure Christians can remain in the region.
“Bombing is also killing people, destroying the infrastructure, houses, schools, churches,” said Patriarch Louis Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
“There’s no military solution for the conflict, especially when there are no troops on the ground providing assistance,” he said.
Sako spoke to Crux in Iraq, during a 48-hour pilgrimage led by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, France. Together with 100 of his flock, Barbarin traveled to Erbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, to spend the weekend with more than 400,000 people displaced by violence.
Sako, who leads 500,000 faithful, said the only way ISIS could be expelled is through cooperation between the international coalition led by the United States and the Iraqi central government.
He said that for many months “the world turned its back” to what was happening in Iraq and Syria, where almost a half-million Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities currently live in “crowded cabins or out in the open, in small tents that cannot shelter them from the cold winter.”
Sako said the presence of Christians in the Middle East is an unparalleled tool for peaceful coexistence in the Middle East.
“What’s going on in Iraq is a tragedy, and it’s an international moral duty to help those who are paying the price of fundamentalism to stay at home,” he said.
Sako said that without Christians, the region would lose important gifts.
“They’re an elite of very well-educated people that hope to remain in their country,” he said. “If they’re away, fundamentalist groups start running around the area. It’ll be just like it was when we had the Taliban.
For Sako, the French delegation’s visit had two meanings.
“They came to support the displaced families, to remind them that they’re not alone nor isolated,” he said, “and also to show with concrete action that they’re supporting us, praying for us.”
The patriarch said the Church plays a key role in keeping the spirits of the refugees up. Sako, also president of Iraq’s conference of bishops, said he will not resign himself to seeing his country without Christians.
But to avoid that fate, he said it’s time to have all hands on deck. That includes the return of a dozen priests who fled the country after ISIS took possession of Mosul, Qaraqosh, and other cities with large Christian populations.
“We’re pastors, we should stay,” Sako said. “We have to take care of our flock. We’re consecrated people, we have to make sacrifices, give a good example.”
Nine of those priests have sought refuge in the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Peter based in the San Diego area.
Those priests have refused the call to go back, even when Sako declared them suspended for not respecting their vow of “obedience to their superiors.”
The Rev. Noel Gorgis told an ABC affiliate in San Diego in late October that returning to Iraq right now as a Catholic priest would be “suicide.” He said that if Francis orders him to do so he would comply, but “I don’t believe he’ll say go kill yourself.”
Sako isn’t backing down, saying simply “they have to come back.”
“They don’t have permission to stay away,” he said. “Five came back. Why are the others refusing to do the same? Seeing a priest leaving his parish, abandoning his flock creates confusion. This is not good.”
“A priest has given himself to the Lord and to service his people. He shouldn’t seek his freedom, his safety,” he said.
Though rare, there are examples of lay Iraqi Christians who have made the choice to come back.
Iraqi brothers Salwan and Nashwan Zaitor, together with their parents and most of their family, fled Iraq in 1993 and resettled in the Netherlands. While there, they founded Babylon Media Group and built a successful company abroad.
Though they were conscious of the rise in Christian persecution, they nonetheless decided to return home, along with their wives and children, in 2005. Today, Babylon Media, based in Erbil, has more than 240 employees.
“We’re probably the only case of Christians who, having left Iraq and built a successful life elsewhere, decided to come back,” Salwan said.
“We want to stay, because this is our place, where we belong,” he said. “God put us here. He wants us to remain here.”
It was because of Babylon’s technical support that thousands of refugees were able to watch a video message from Pope Francis Saturday in which he condemned the “inhuman violence” done to Christians and other religious minorities.
Another Christian leader in Iraq said the world is turning a blind eye to “genocide.”
“Two million Yazidis and Christians are in danger of being killed by ISIS,” said Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil.
Like Sako and the Zaitor brothers, Warda believes the situation here demands a global response.
“What’s happening is in Iraq and Syria, but it’s a global issue,” he said. “We have American citizens, British, Australians, and Dutch that are fighting for ISIS. The world has to get involved.”
Warda told Crux that the international involvement on the fight against the rise of the terrorist group should take a more committed shape, saying that “two or three years of fighting” won’t solve the problem.
When asked what ordinary Christians can do to show support, Warda said prayers are very important. He also encouraged people to send letters to Erbil as messages of hope for those living in the refuge centers.
“We’re receiving some, but many more should come,” he said. “A letter for Christmas or Easter would be a great gift for many.”
For those who can provide material support but don’t know how, Warda said there are many Catholic agencies currently funding projects, such as “Adopt a Refugee Family,” led by the Jesuits, or the different campaigns of “Aid to the Church in Need.”
“If you can help provide a warm night to a family that has lost it all, please, please, do so,” Warda said.
That show of solidarity is making an impact on Iraqis.
Salwan Zaitor, one of the Babylon Media brothers, was moved by the French delegation’s visit.
“We don’t need money as much as we need to know you’re here, with us,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “And that’s what they did: they came and prayed with us. I don’t remember anyone doing that before.”