.- Reflecting on his recent trip to the Holy Land and to Iraqi Kurdistan, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City said that for all practical purposes, the bishops of Mosul no longer have Churches to shepherd.
“When we were in Erbil, we met with the Archbishop of Mosul, who along with his priests and all of the faithful of the archdiocese, have been driven out,” Archbishop Coakley told CNA in an Oct. 16 interview.
“He is, in effect, the archbishop of a Church that no longer exists.”
Archbishop Coakley continued, saying, “they've all been scattered. There are no more Christians in his archdiocese. That's a traumatic, but illustrative situation, of what's happening there, and what can happen, if things don't improve.”
There are in fact two Catholic archbishops of Mosul: one for Chaldean, and one for Syriac Catholics. Both of them, as well as three Orthodox bishops, were forced from their home along with their people by the Islamic State in mid-July – three months ago.
As chairman of Catholic Relief Services, Archbishop Coakley spent seven days earlier this month travelling to Gaza, Jerusalem, and Iraqi Kurdistan to survey the work being done by the U.S. bishops' international charity.
“Some of the fears that we were hearing from the bishops, particularly in Iraq, was that the Middle East is going to soon be without Christians. Christians have been in the Middle East for 1,800 years, or more, 1,900, 2,000 years, and they're being squeezed out completely.”
The exodus of Middle East Christians is not only caused by such extremist groups as the Islamic State; the situation is much the same in Israel and Palestine, the archbishop said.
“Our politics in the U.S. are so pro-Israel, it's very hard to criticize some of the policies, and to point out some of the effects those policies are having in the lives of innocent people, Palestinians in this case, some of whom are Christians. But many of the Christians, unfortunately because of those policies, have been driven out already of Israel and Palestine,” he said.
“So the Christians are really the ones who are kind of suffering between a rock and a hard place, between a hostile Israeli government and sometimes a hostile presence within the Palestinian people who happen to be Muslim. It's difficult; the decline in the Christian population of the Holy Land. Like so much of the Middle East, it has dropped precipitously in the last 40 years.”
Speaking of the Gaza Strip, Archbishop Coakley discussed the violence there this summer, in which Israeli attacks killed more than 1,900 Palestinians, and left upwards of 100,000 homeless.
The violence began after the murders of both Israeli and Palestinian teens in June and July. Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip fired rockets on Israel, and Israel responded with airstrikes against Gaza. Sixty-seven Israelis died in the conflict.
“I saw hospitals flattened in Gaza … the devastation there is terrible,” Archbishop Coakley said. “And I know there is blame all the way around – it's a very complex situation – but I think (people) really need to understand that not only the Christians, obviously, in Gaza, but the Muslims, all of the Palestinian people there, are really suffering.”
“The vast majority of the people who are suffering are innocents, civilians, not (Hamas) party members, not militants.”
Acknowledging that Gazans have “poor leadership” in Hamas and that “Israel has security rights – there's no question about that,” the archbishop said that “it is truly a complex situation.”
“We saw the effects of the bombing from the Israeli side that devastated so much of Gaza. And with the borders being closed, people are not able to access medical care. I mean, it's just, terrible.”
Following his time in the Holy Land, Archbishop Coakley, together with Catholic Relief Services' CEO Carolyn Woo and COO Sean Callahan, travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan, visiting the cities of Erbil and Dohuk.
Together, the two cities are hosting more than 130,000 persons who were displaced from Nineveh province by the Islamic State (ISIS).
“We were meeting with local bishops, and they were introducing us to some of the situations on the ground there, and the needs that need to be addressed rather urgently; particularly transitional housing with the onset of winter coming, so it was quite an immersion, really, to a very, very tragic situation.”
Iraqi Kurdistan is dominated by the Zagros Mountains, which reach elevations of more than 11,000 feet. The winters, lasting from November to April, are rainy and cold, with occasional flooding in the more mountainous areas.
“Obviously the most immediate concern” for Catholic Relief Services, Archbishop Coakley said, “is winterization, up there in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, because the winters can be rather severe.”
Catholic Relief Services is working to get the displaced – many of whom are living in tents – “into transitional housing.”
“What is being done, is there are a lot of vacant buildings, partially constructed buildings, that can provide some reasonably good shelter,” Archbishop Coakley explained. “I think with some of the work we intend to do through CRS and the national collection that is being taken up to assist the refugees and internally displaced persons in the Middle East, is to probably secure some of those buildings, make them more weather-proof, put windows and doors on, where at this point they're open.”
“At this point it's premature to know where all these people are going to finally end up” in the long run, the archbishop commented.
“Without something rather dramatic occurring with ISIS that would provide security for Christians, it's not likely that they would be able to return to ISIS-controlled areas.”
“But I think whether they would stay in Iraq in the Kurdish region where they presently are, around Dohuk and Erbil, or whether they might migrate to other parts of the Middle East, or migrate to Europe, or North America, it's premature to know.”
He added, however, that both the local government – he met with the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechervan Barzani – and local bishops “would like to keep them close, within their own communities.”
“We found that the local government in the Kurdistan region, the prime minister included, were very concerned that they don't lose the Christian population. It seems the Kurdish government is very tolerant of religious diversity … it's a very religiously diverse area.”
Barzani, he reported, “was very glad to have the support of the Catholic community in the United States.”
The archbishop noted that the Kurds, while majority Muslim, “pride themselves in that kind of inclusive nature of their ethnic makeup,” citing the welcome presence of Yazidis and Christians, as well as “a tiny little sect we learned about, they're still followers of John the Baptist.”
Concluding, Archbishop Coakley noted the importance of continuing to remember and support the millions of displaced Iraqis.
“What we heard repeatedly, especially from the Church leaders, the bishops we met with – we met with the bishop who's the head of Caritas Iraq, the Archbishop of Erbil, the bishop in Dohuk, the Archbishop of Mosul – they all repeated the same thing: don't forget us, don't abandon us.”
“They really want us to advocate with not only our Church here in the U.S., but with our government, to not forget the suffering people of Iraq.”