Scattered in Limbo: The uprooting and dispersal of Middle East Christians

Speech given at the Hudson Institute‘s conference, “The Islamic State’s Religious Cleansing and the Urgency of a Strategic Response” at The Peninsula in New York City.

Ladies and gentlemen, long before there was ISIS, civil war in Syria, an Arab Spring, Al Qaeda, the U.S. invasions of Iraq, civil war in Lebanon, and the Israeli-Arab conflict, Middle East Christians were on the move. Whether hiding from persecution by Jewish leaders, Roman emperors, Persian forces, Byzantine bishops, Muslim Arab invaders or Ottoman bureaucrats, the region’s Christians demonstrated agility, tenacity and the will to survive. As they moved from place to place — leaving behind their ancient centers of Antioch or Edessa — Middle East Christians preserved their identities, their cultures, their languages, their rites and their unique approaches to the one Christian faith. They reestablished their monasteries and convents, churches and schools from Beirut to Baghdad, prospering in the modern era even with the rise of ideological fanaticism and its destructive twin, intolerance.

But the sixth day of August 2014 will be forever seared into the psyches of all Middle East Christians. For on that day, maniacal extremists upended the lives of more than 100,000 Iraqi Christians, forcing them to flee their homes, leaving behind everything in a matter of minutes.

The human cost of the displacement of the Middle East’s Christians is tremendous. Although they may account for only about 5 percent of the region’s population — about 15.5 million people — Christians dominate the region’s middle classes, exercising prominence in the tourism industry, commercial and skilled labor sectors, and the civil service. And as they flee the extremists rapidly taking hold in the region, moderates from other communities follow, leaving behind those who cannot leave — the poor, the uneducated, the elderly and the infirmed — and those who stand to gain by fanning the flames of hate.

Safuan and his wife Dalia had everything: good jobs, two healthy sons, aged 5 and 8, and an active social life centered on the family and their parish community in the city of Mosul. Dalia was expecting her third child, and preparations were being made to welcome the baby. Then ISIS swept in, took Mosul as the capital of their “caliphate,” and the family fled to Qaraqosh, an hour away. Their precarious refuge soon collapsed, however, as ISIS swept into the region’s Christian heartland, the Nineveh Plain.

“We had only 30 minutes to flee Qaraqosh,” Safuan recalled. “We took what we could in our car and left — like all 100,000 other Christians — using the same dusty road. We were all afraid, stuck in traffic. The crying, screaming, dust and heat … it was a nightmare.”

Meanwhile, ISIS was gaining ground as Iraqi Kurdish forces retreated to defend their capital, Erbil. The bullets flew.

The scariest thing was that we did not know who was shooting, “where those bullets were coming from,” said Ibtihaj Rifo, who fled the same night with her family from the Christian town of Bartalla. “We didn’t have a clear idea of our destination. We knew we had to head toward Kurdistan. That was the only place.”

“When we arrived in Erbil,” said Safuan, “it was total chaos. Like so many, we slept outside for many nights. We knew then that our lives here were over.”

Perhaps that summer day may be the moment when the slow erosion of Middle East Christianity gave way to a flood, as Christians resign themselves to defeat, mutter, “khalas,” “enough,” and move on forever.

Paradoxically, the flight of Christians from the region is arduous and painfully slow. While hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes in Iraq and Syria, most exist in a sort of limbo, hunkering down with friends and family in safer areas of Lebanon, Syria’s Valley of the Christians, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan or Iraqi Kurdistan. Some 12,000 Syrian Armenian Christians have found refuge in Armenia, but few others have acquired the coveted visas necessary to emigrate to the Americas, Europe or Oceania, where most Middle Eastern Christians now live.

Just a few months into their exile, the Rifo family was not yet able to accept the possibility of emigration.

“We all agree that this is something we don’t want to think of,” said the matriarch of the family, Ibtihaj. “We will go back to our houses, even if the house is destroyed. Returning home is the only possibility we are thinking of and we don’t want to think of any other possibility.”

Her husband Nabil had different thoughts.

“Even if we go back to our houses, we have lost our sense of security,” he said, adding that some of his non-Christian neighbors and colleagues were responsible for the looting of abandoned Christian houses. Others joined ISIS.

“Will we ever return to normal?”

However one defines it, normality is as precious a commodity to the Christians of the Middle East as is a visa to the West, and water, which is always in short supply.

“The moment we crossed the checkpoint into Iraqi Kurdistan,” said Ibtihaj Rifo, “I didn’t know if I should cry or if I should laugh. The first thing I said to my family was: ‘We have become displaced people. Now we will be receiving food and aid from people. We will have to queue for the shower and the bathroom.’ ”

Not all of those who have fled the advance of ISIS have grasped the consequences of exile as quickly as Mrs. Rifo. Traumatized by an interruption so abrupt, violent and final, most remain stunned, as if trapped in a nightmare.

“I don’t believe what has happened,” said Fadia Matti. “I cry when I remember Qaraqosh: the churches, Communion, having parties and how we would sit with our neighbors and wait for Christmas and Easter. I am sitting here, but my mind is in Qaraqosh.”

Until recently, the home for this family of six was a small space padded with foam mattresses and separated from other living spaces by plastic sheeting in a dank basement of an unfinished structure in Erbil. A number of families shared one bathroom that they took turns cleaning, but the building’s unfinished sewage treatment system made the process futile. The smell of human refuse permeated the air.

“My children get sick. I take them to the doctor. They get well. And then they get sick again,” Mrs. Matti said of the endless cycle of poor health that has stricken the family. Since last August, she has developed respiratory problems; coughing and crying interrupt her ability to speak.

“We know nothing,” she said. “We are just waiting for God’s mercy.”

As families such as the Mattis wait, the traumatic scars of displacement and loss send them to hospitals, clinics or worse — the grave.

In the Jordanian capital of Amman, where some 8,000 Iraqi Christians have found refuge since last August, refugees seek care from the oldest health care facility in the kingdom, the Italian Hospital. Daily, as many as 130 Iraqi Christians seek medical assistance, joining hundreds of poor Jordanians as well as displaced Syrians, Sudanese and Somalians for the finest treatment made available by the Catholic facility.

According to the facility’s medical director, Dr. Khalid Shammas, those Iraqi Christians who fled ISIS come to the Italian Hospital for the treatment of hypertension and diabetes. Others seek treatment for their heart ailments and strokes, which are usually related to the enormous stress from the loss of homes, livelihoods and more.

“We listen to them. There is struggle, loss and disappointment. It’s no wonder the refugees are depressed,” confided the hospital’s administrator, Sister Elizabeth of the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary. “Their psychological condition directly affects their physical well-being.”

Sister Najma Habash of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena has noted that many displaced Iraqi Christians are struggling with depression, feeling that their “liberty and dignity have been taken away from them.”

Those who fled, she said, had homes and enjoyed financial independence. “Now they find it hard to buy bread, food and basic necessities for their families.”

Feeding their families has forced some women into the unthinkable: prostitution. A few years ago, Souad, a Melkite Greek Catholic, fled her home in Aleppo, Syria, for Lebanon. She feared for the safety of her 12-year-old daughter; extremists were on the move, kidnapping young girls and selling them into slavery.

Once in Lebanon, Souad’s husband could only find occasional work as a day laborer. Unable to meet the $400 per month in rent and utilities, and with nothing to eat, he forced his young wife into prostitution. This stark reality is not uncommon in a country where, in the words of one observer, “desperation is rampant and choices are few.”

Fortunately, for Souad and her family, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary, Sister Wardeh Kayrouz, intervened, rescuing Souad and her family from further disgrace, if not worse.

“When Sister Wardeh came,” revealed Souad, “I felt like the doors of heaven had opened for me.”

But the needs of the refugees, who have poured into Lebanon and make up more than a quarter of the population, devastated the nun, who had been working with Iraqi refugees in Jordan for nearly two decades.

“I was depressed and crying,” she said, feeling powerless in the face of all of the suffering around her. “But my sisters came to my rescue and gave me a car and a cell phone.” These resources, though meager, gave her the tools she needed to start making a difference. She began by organizing retreats, offering psychological counseling, guided spiritual direction and necessities such as food and friends willing to help. All of these efforts have freed Souad, allowing her to focus on her girls, her toddler son, and her husband.

Making a difference is what the followers of Jesus have been doing in the Middle East for millennia, both in times of prosperity and peace and in times of war. Within weeks of their exile, the prioress of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, Sister Maria Hanna, realized that displaced children needed special help.

“Children in the displaced families are the real victims,” she said. “They are really crushed by the situation. Entire families had to suddenly all live together in one room or tent and the children were not allowed to speak, to express fear or frustration. They couldn’t play. They couldn’t shout. Often they had to bear witness to domestic problems caused by the displacement.”

Responding to this need, her community of sisters established a kindergarten and an orphanage in the Christian neighborhood of Erbil, Ain Kawa, substituting them for the institutions abandoned back home. These efforts have eased the burden on families — especially the children themselves, starving to learn and play.

“One of the boys was so excited to be going to kindergarten that, the night before the first day back, he slept the whole night with his backpack on,” Sister Maria Hanna said. “He did not want anything to come between him and his learning!”

Hearing she would be going back to kindergarten, Sister Maria said, one young girl picked up her family’s statue of the Virgin Mary and danced around, thanking the Blessed Mother again and again.

Safuan and his wife Dalia sold what little they had and moved with their boys to Amman, where Dalia safely delivered a baby girl in the Italian Hospital. “We named her Mariana, Safuan said, “because the Virgin Mary saved us.

“The birth of Mariana has changed our attitude. We know now that God has chosen a different path for her and thus for us. We aren’t sure yet what God’s plan is for our family, but it only can get better from here and we will follow his will.”

Perhaps the critical mass of the Christian faith community that gave us the origins of Arab nationalism, modern Arab scholarship, pan-Arab sentiments and Palestinian liberation theology will evaporate. But hopefully the seeds of hope and social justice sowed by generations of Middle East Christian priests and counselors, doctors and nurses, midwives and sisters, therapists and teachers will germinate and take root. Hopefully, these well-watered roots will sprout shoots, leading to the growth of what Pope Benedict called “positive secularism” and thriving Middle Eastern societies “concerned for the fundamental rights of the human person … whatever his or her origins, religious convictions and political preferences.”

All is not despair for the Christians of the Middle East. Despite the deluge of violence, Middle East Christians — through their emergency relief, their social service initiatives, schools and hospitals that aid all those affected by war — even now are restoring self-respect and trust. They bring joy to persons robbed of these basic human values by the destructive ideologies plaguing the region. They continue this because of their bond with Christ. Earlier this week, the president of CNEWA, Msgr. John E. Kozar, concelebrated Mass in a tent with more than 350 displaced Iraqi Christians in Erbil. “The tent was packed and full of joy,” he told me, “and their singing and devotion gave me a boost in appreciating how important is the Eucharist with people of deep faith.”

Thank you.

Michael La Civita, K.C.H.S., is communications director for Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

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