ROME — One month ago, a small group of Catholics in France was desperately trying to raise consciousness about the victims of radical Islamic terror. It wasn’t the Charlie Hebdo attack that drove them, which was yet to come, but rather hundreds of thousands of sometimes forgotten Iraqi and Syrian victims.
Led by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, those French Catholics flew to Erbil in Iraq to bring the city’s famed “Festival of Lights” to people who have lost their homes, and in many cases their loved ones, to violence just like the gunfire that ripped through the offices of the French satirical magazine on Wednesday, often on a much grander scale.
As the world mobilizes to express solidarity for the 12 dead and 11 wounded in Paris, the question raised in early December by those French Catholics takes on a new urgency: Where’s the solidarity for all those who live, and sometimes die, half a world away under the physical shadow of ISIS?
According the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than 1.2 million Iraqis have fallen into the category of “internally displaced persons” since the middle of 2014, with an estimated one-third being Christians.
Barbarin led a delegation of 100 Catholics from Lyon to Iraq in order to show solidarity with those people. Crux joined the outing, the only non-French language media outlet to take part.
The trip centered on Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, an enclave within Iraq, which today hosts almost half a million refugees. It’s a city that mere months ago was an up-and-coming commercial hub, but today looks and feels like a shell of its former self.
People have taken shelter in abandoned sports centers, in prefabricated cubicles installed in half-finished luxury buildings, and in tents put up in the backyards of churches. Refugees of all sorts — including architects, doctors, and engineers — pass their days waiting for Australia, Canada, the United States, or France to grant them permission to come.
Roughly 3,000 people now live in what was supposed to be a shopping mall, and many told Crux they’d rather wash dishes in a country where they won’t be persecuted than return to their homes in Mosul or Qaraqosh.
Nareman Jameel Oolo, for example, left Qaraqosh on Aug. 6, a day she said is forever engraved in her memory.
In perfect English she learned by talking to American soldiers, Nareman said her dad was killed when she was only 14, but that because of the “insistence and great efforts of my mother,” she continued studying.
Oolo is a computer engineer, her sister a pharmacist, and her brother a civil engineer. Together with their mother they live in a cubicle installed in what once was the foundation for a seven-story building.
“I’d like to resettle in a place where I need a passport to get there,” she told Crux.
“I’ve already left everything behind. What’s there for me to leave if I can escape this? I’d like to go to a country that has good movies, like America,” she said.
For Salwan Zator from the Iraqi Babylon media group, the early December visit of the French delegation offered a small sliver of hope.
He and his brother Nashwan are among the few Iraqi Christian exiles who built a successful life abroad and then decided to return home, in their case in 2005 to build an Erbil-based company that today employs 250 Christians.
It was actually their equipment that was used to display a video message from Pope Francis shown to the more than 25,000 refugees who participated in a candle-lit procession through the streets of Erbil, recreating a renowned Lyons display of lights on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Few in the crowd could see the pope or the subtitles to his message in Arabic, in which Francis denounced the “extremist fundamentalist group” targeting the country’s Christian and Yazidi minorities.
But for Zator, not knowing what the pontiff was saying wasn’t a problem because “the video is proof that he hasn’t forgotten us [and] that we’re in his prayers.”
“That’s what we need,” Zator told Crux. “For the world to keep remembering us.”
For Barbarin and his delegation, the fact that the same kind of violence wearily familiar to the Middle East has arrived in France probably isn’t much of a surprise.
France has the largest bloc of Muslim immigrants in the European Union, conservatively estimated at 10 percent of the overall population, and Barbarin’s Lyon is a center of the burgeoning Muslim footprint.
“In France, we have two contradictory images [of Islam],” Barbarin told Crux during the December trip.
“One says we’re all brothers, that there’s only one God, and that everything is the same. Another [says] that we have to be careful [of Muslims], because if not, we’ll get our heads cut off.”
“Very few [Christians], even among the bishops, speak about both — the danger of the violence, and the deep sense of God and the man of faith that we see in many Muslims,” he said.
By bringing both into clear relief, Barbarin said, “it’s possible for us to live together.”