Pope Francis' special envoy to Iraq has safely arrived in Erbil, the Holy See press officer said Thursday, adding that he has met with displaced persons and will meet with the Iraqi president later in the day.
In an Aug. 14 briefing with journalists in Seoul, where Pope Francis is visiting for the next five days, Fr. Federico Lombardi announced that Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, had sent a message to the Pope the previous day saying he had “arrived securely in Erbil.”
Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where hundreds of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities have fled from the advance of the Islamic State; it is within 50 miles of positions held by the Islamist militants.
Cardinal Filoni left for Iraq Aug. 12 and entered the country from Jordan, according to Fides, the news agency of the Vatican's missionary congregation.
While the conditions of the displaced persons is very difficult, Cardinal Filoni recounted that today “a little child was born,” calling it “a sign of hope.”
Fr. Lombardi reported that during his stay in Erbil, Cardinal Filoni has met with the bishops of the area and with displaced persons at the home of the city's bishop, Bashar Warda.
The papal envoy delivered funds Pope Francis had given him as his own personal contribution to help the displaced, and Fr. Lombardi reported that “the people were very grateful to the Holy Father.”
Cardinal Filoni has also met with local authorities, including Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan; he is due to meet later with the Iraqi president, Fuad Masum.
According to the Kurdish outlet “Rudaw,” Barzani told Cardinal Filoni that “it is the duty of the Kurdistan Regional Government to protect and support displaced Christians, Yazidis and other religious and ethnic groups seeking refuge in the Kurdistan Region.”
Barzani added, however, that the regional government “cannot provide adequate assistance” given “the number of refugees and displaced people.”
According to the United Nations, there are more than 1.2 million internally displaced persons in Iraq, as well as at least 10,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria.
Cardinal Filoni is well aware of the issue, and stressed in a Aug. 13 interview with the Kurdish newspaper “Xebat” that the “situation of fleeing Christians is desperate, since in Erbil they do not know how to host these thousands and thousands of people.”
On Aug. 10, Erbil, a city of 1.5 million, was already hosting a more than 70,000 displaced Christians.
In order to facilitate mobilization of additional resources in goods, funds, and assets to ensure a more effective response to the internally displaced person, the UN declared Aug. 14 its highest level of emergency in Iraq.
The designation is shared only with Syria, South Sudan, and Central African Republic.
Caritas Internationalis is working in the front line to help the internally displaced persons. Laura Sheahen, the organization's communications officer, told CNA Aug. 12 that “over the next six months, CRS (Caritas USA) plans to provide support to 30,000 families” in education, supplies, and food, as well as preparation for longer-term resettlement.
Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic pastoral charity, pledged on Aug. 12 to give $1 million for persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria; it has already given more than $320,000 to the effort, and is seeking donor support for its aid pledge.
The Holy See's diplomacy is also working to ensure protection by the international community of the more than 1 million internally displaced persons.
In recent days, the Holy See has been pushing for humanitarian intervention, and also a military intervention, to protect the displaced.
According to a source who works at the UN office in Geneva, the Holy See has held several bilateral meetings in order to promote an extraordinary session of the Human Rights Council to discuss the plight of Christians and religious minorities in Iraq.
The extraordinary session may be called by at least one third of the 47 members of the council, and it is possible that an extraordinary session will be called in September.
It is expected that the same month, Pope Francis will meet with the apostolic nuncios to all the Middle Eastern nations to discuss the crisis.
The militant Sunni Islamist organization Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was among the rebels fighting in the Syrian civil war; this spring it spread its operations to Iraq, taking control of Mosul and swaths of territory in the country's north and west. It has now declared a caliphate, and calls itself the Islamic State.
All non-Sunni persons in the Islamic State have been persecuted – Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims have all fled the territory.
In Syria on Aug. 13, it seized a string of towns located northeast of Aleppo and near the Turkish border, including Akhtarin. On Aug. 11 it had seized the Iraqi town of Jalawla, located in Diyala province within 25 miles of the Iranian border.