The Christian Presence in Iraq
The Iraqi Christian community, perhaps the oldest in the world, has survived more than 1400 years under Islamic rule in its homeland. During the first 500 years of the golden age of Islam, the Christians participated and shared in the shaping of the most advanced civilization of its time. Then, during the downfall period under the barbarian invasion of the Mongols in 1258, followed by the Ottomans and different brutal military invasions and occupations, the Christians remained in their homelands continuously, sometimes in harmony and many times in fear with their Muslim neighbors.
Unfortunately, the Christians could not hold on and support the last wave of modern Islamization. The brutality of ISIS militants and the marketing of this brutality over social media succeeded in creating shock and terror among all minorities of northern Iraq. On 6 August, the Christian presence in Mosul and Nineveh plain faded completely along with their trust in the international community and Baghdad and Kurdish governments, the latter of which withdrew their forces from the Christian towns over night, leaving more than 130,000 Christians without any kind of protection and subject to the brutality of unmerciful militants.
Lacking options and weapons to defend themselves, all Christian inhabitants fled to save their lives and those of their children. At midnight, they left with few garments and headed further north to find shelter in the Kurdish territories. Some drove through the desert for many hours to avoid military confrontation and ISIS checkpoints, other slacking the means of transportation had to walk for more than ten hours before reaching safe areas. Children, elderly, and all families found themselves helpless and alone under the burning sun of August, where the temperature reaches 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit). The Kurdish government provided them with only permission to stay in their territories safely; besides security, nothing was available. The only shelters they had were the backyards of the churches and some unfinished commercial centers transformed into temporary camps with primitive textile partitioning.
The Christians of the Nineveh Plain were considered the elite of the Iraqi population in the north, largely because of their education, occupying the best positions in the majority of skilled fields requiring advanced educations. They were counted among the best medical doctors, the best teachers, the best engineers, etc. They believed they could make a difference and worked hard from one generation to another to create a more open society where an individual is accepted and respected for what he is and not for his religious beliefs. Unfortunately, their efforts did not yield positive results, and the people with whom they lived for over 1400 years decided to attack them and force them to either convert to Islam or leave. There is little surprising about their collective decision to leave.
CNEWA Representatives Visit to Iraq — 2-5 September, 2014
Since the early days of the displacement, CNEWA’s Beirut office has been in continuous contact with the local church in Erbil and with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, showing solidarity and figuring out the best ways to accompany them and help reducing the suffering of refugees.
On 2 September, a delegation from Beirut composed of Michel Constantin and Imad Abou Jaoude, representing CNEWA, and Sister Marie Claude Naddaf from the Good Shepherd Sisters, representing all the female congregations in Lebanon, headed to Erbil to better understand the humanitarian situation and to get in direct contact with the local church people who are involved in reaching out for the refugees.
Our activities during this visit could be summarized as such:
We first met with the Syriac Catholic Archbishop Boutros Moshe of Mosul, who himself was displaced from Qaraqosh with more than 130,000 Christians of all denominations from nine villages and towns in the Nineveh Plain.
To get to the archbishop’s office in Martha Shmouny Center in the quarter of Ain Kawa, a neighborhood of Erbil initially inhabited by Christians, we passed through a large crowd mainly composed of children with their mothers waiting for their turn to get a vaccine from a field dispensary set up in a small tent where doctors — themselves also displaced from the hospital in Qaraqosh — were providing medical services to hundreds of Christian refugees.
The archbishop received us in a steel container located in the front yard of his church in Erbil. Three priests helped him to register the displaced families. The archbishop explained to us that the most urgent need at present is to provide a primary health care center.
We visited the dispensary outside the displacement center and met with the Rev. Behnam Benoka, a Syriac Catholic priest in charge of the dispensary. Father Benoka explained that at present, there are only two dispensaries taking care of the Christian refugees; the first one is called Habib al Maleh — a private dispensary, run by a Chaldean director, and supported by the Kurdish government. The second is an on-site dispensary installed during the first days of displacement inside a tent on the sidewalk outside Martha Shmouny Center. Fifty staff members operate the facility, all of them displaced and volunteering their expertise and time for free. Among the volunteers are 15 medical doctors from the hospital in Qaraqosh, in addition to 15 medical assistants and 20 volunteers.
The dispensary receives an average of 500 patients every day and provides vaccinations for the children. The patients are from all displacement centers of Erbil.
The urgent need at present is to extend the dispensary by providing four prefab rooms and a large new tent to serve as a reception area. Each room will serve as a clinic for one doctor according to each specialty — internal medicine, pediatric, gynecology, ophthalmology, etc. — and will be equipped with the basic needed equipment. The dispensary will be located in the front yard of the displacement center of the Syriac Catholic Church. Martha Shmouny will provide services all over the day and the doctors will be shifting to cover the needs of all patients.
Regarding the second major problem that they have which is the provision of proper shelter for the displaced people, Archbishop Moshe informed us that a commercial building called Ain Kawa Mall was put by the owner under the disposition of the refugees, to be partitioned to shelter 100 families on each of three large unfinished floors. We visited the location and met with the contractor who was assigned by UNHCR to prepare the first floor.
The cost of each floor is estimated at U.S. $150,000 — or an average of $1,500 to shelter one family — including a collective sanitary bloc and a common cooking area.
The total cost of partitioning the two floors to accommodate 200 additional families is estimated at $300,000.
Then we visited the Redemptorist Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Wardah of Erbil and Chaldean Archbishop Emile Shimoun Nona of Mosul at the Chaldean Archbishopric of Erbil, also located in Ain Kawa. Archbishop Bashar of Erbil informed us that the food rations, water tanks and mobile toilets will be ensured through the donation of the central government of Baghdad. He is in charge of communicating with the government on behalf of all the refugees.
He also emphasized on the urgent need to provide primary health care and to find shelter for families living in the backyards of churches. The families without shelter are estimated at around 1,500 families.
Archbishop Bashar also informed us that, through his connections with the Kurdish government, two large storage hangars have been made available to the refugees. We visited the location with the archbishops and inspected the potential shelter. Each hangar can be partitioned into 25 private rooms, and each room is large enough to accommodate two families, the sanitary block could be ensured through the mobile toilets and showers provided by the government of Baghdad. The cost of partitioning of each warehouse is estimated at around $45,000 to $50,000.
We then visited a number of religious congregations working with the refugees in their convents. We visited the Chaldean Daughters of Mary, the Chaldean Sacred Heart Sisters and the Syriac Catholic Ephremite Sisters. The next day, at the patriarchal Chaldean seminary in Ain Kawa, we met all 32 sisters and priests who were displaced with their people. They are presently very active in reaching out for the refugees in all the settlements. The meeting was the first of its kind and every sister and father was pointing out the different difficulties facing their daily work with the refugees. This meeting was very important and gave us the broader vision for the needs assessment and the priorities.
First of all, it is very important to mention that the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena are providing a real witness of accompanying the poor in their daily sufferings and remaining with them through every step of their walk on this unprecedented crisis.
Among all the sad stories and the uncertainty of all the refugee families, I saw a shining light through the common life of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine, and all the sisters living among the families. It was really a remarkable situation, where the poor help the poor and refugee reaches out to refugee. The solidarity among the different congregations is so strong that the superior general of the congregation has prepared in the backyard of the convent a place to install prefab rooms to accommodate all the refugee sisters, regardless of congregation. And in the morning the sisters, along with the brothers from the Congregation of Jesus the Redeemer, would leave two by two — like the apostles — to serve in the displacement centers.
As for the needs of the refugees, it is very difficult to prioritize the needs as they are living on the streets and are practically in need of everything.
Following are the needs by sector:
Capacity building and coordination efforts: Despite all the good intentions, we felt that both the people and the churches are still dealing with the situation as a temporary one. They are still in shock, waiting for a miracle to happen or to wake up from the nightmare and to resume their lives as though nothing had happened. During the meeting, we shared with them our experiences in Syria and advised them that as long as time passes, the difficulties will increase and the needs and the sufferings will be greater. For all these reasons it is very important to coordinate the efforts, and to come up with a plan for the needs of the refugees and to address the world accordingly.
Shelter: The majority of the displaced Christian families are currently living either in schools or in tents outside the church properties of Ain Kawa and Erbil. This situation cannot continue indefinitely; by mid-September, the great majority of the families living in the schools will have to evacuate. The Kurdish Authority has already sent warning notes, and some schools were evacuated during our visit.
In the absence of any statistical effort, we estimate the number of families living in tents and in schools at around 2,500 to 3,000 families in Erbil only. Archbishop Emile of Mosul informed us that the worst refugee conditions are in Erbil, since in the northern cities of Duhok and Zakho and in Suleimaniyah most of the refugees are either living with their relatives or have rented small apartments and are sharing them with other families.
It is to be mentioned that the rent cost in Erbil, and especially in the Christian neighborhood of Ain Kawa, is very high and is estimated at an average of $1,500 per month for a two-bedroom apartment.
Health: The issue of health care is very important, as a good proportion of refugees used to rely on a public insurance system provided by the central government of Baghdad, especially for public employees. This system is not applicable in the Kurdish territories, and private medical care is extremely expensive. Therefore the local dispensaries that provide primary health care and on-site medical services are extremely important for the lives of the refugees.
Education: The problem with the education issue goes beyond the scarcity of enrollment openings in the Kurdish schools. There are also cultural barriers, since the curriculum taught in the Kurdish schools relies on the Kurdish language, while all Christian students used to rely on the Arabic as the first language in their curriculum.
Employment: A good proportion of Christian refugees used to work for the government, either as teachers, doctors, engineers, or workers in the oil sector or industries owned by the Iraqi government. All these employees used to get their salaries from the central bank branch of Mosul. Since the invasion of Mosul in June 2014,employees could not retrieve their salaries. Even at present in Erbil, the lack of trust between the Iraqi Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, and the lack of any mechanism to transfer the salaries to Erbil, has left refugees without any source of income.
Moreover, because of the crisis in Syria and the displacement of large numbers of Syrian Kurds to Erbil, Syrian Kurds became the priority in private and public employment at the expense of the Christian Iraqis.
Food and essentials: At present, food and other critical supplies are provided through local donations and the Christian funds available by the central government and the Ministries of Religious Affairs and the Emigration. Archbishop Bashar Wardah is leading the efforts and has been successful.
Winter items: The weather in Kurdistan is dry and arid desert weather, where the temperature in summer reaches around 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and in winter falls drops to freezing from November until early March. Therefore, enduring the winter will require wool blankets in addition to winter clothing — especially for children — in addition to heating fuel and heaters.
Spiritual and trauma healing support: Many of the families found themselves, in a blink of an eye, losing everything. Many who were well off in their homelands found themselves on the streets. In order to maintain their hope and their faith, huge efforts must be exerted to support all the local churches and religious people to maintain their activities and to provide the families with psychological support. This holds especially for mothers, on an individual and collective basis, to help them accept their new situation while waiting for a solution and end to their problems.
Start with establishing a good, well-equipped dispensary in Erbil that could enhance the efforts of the volunteer staff and improve the quality of the services provided to the displaced families. The tent currently used as a dispensary suffers insufficient sanitation and ventilation, especially in Iraq under the extreme weather conditions.
Help Archbishop Moshe to establish a small center for people with special needs in the multipurpose hall.
Help the sisters in their efforts to provide basic necessities for newborn children — a need not yet covered by any donors — and to purchase some underwear items for children as well as some basic urgent needs.
CNEWA has already started implementing this phase in coordination with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena and Syriac Catholic Father Behnam Benoka. For this purpose, CNEWA has allocated the amount of $75,000. A first payment has been already transferred to the sisters’ account as of 9 September.
As for later phases, they will be elaborated during further visits and through continuous consultation with our church partners.