Erbil, Iraq, Oct 30, 2014 / 03:47 am
Christians who were forced from their homes in northern Iraq by the Islamic State this summer are a people whose soul is being destroyed, said a priest who visited Kurdish Iraq, where many have taken refuge.
"Without question, we are talking about genocide here. Genocide is not only when the people are killed, but also when the soul of a people is destroyed. And that is what is happening in Iraq now," Fr. Andrzej Halemba, head of Aid to the Church in Need's Middle East section, said Oct. 28. "It is the most tragic thing that I have ever experienced."
"I have seen people who have been deeply wounded in their soul. In the various crises in this world I have often seen people who have lost everything. But in Iraq there are Christians who have had to leave everything and take flight three or four times. They can see no light at the end of the tunnel."
At least 120,000 Christians were forced from Mosul and surrounding cities in Nineveh province in July and August by the Islamic State, a newly-established caliphate spread across portions of Iraq and Syria. The militant Sunni Islamist organization – also known as ISIS – has persecuted all non-Sunnis in its territory – Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims have all fled the caliphate.
All of the displaced are "very traumatized," Fr. Halemba said. "Normally in such situations it is the women who pull everything together. But in Kurdistan I have seen women who are staring into nothingness and have closed in on themselves. Their tears have run dry. It is something that I have never seen anywhere else."
Prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country's Christian community numbered around 1.5 million. That figure has plummeted, already, to 300,000.
Fr. Halemba said that most of those who have been displaced by the Islamic State do not even wish to return to their homes. "When one has lost all hope, one wishes to leave one's homeland."
"The majority do not wish to return to their homes. This is a bad sign for the future of Christianity in Iraq. The Christians feel that in Iraq they have been betrayed and abandoned, and they want to get out."
They feel they have no one on whom they can depend, Fr. Halemba reported, adding that "it reminds many Christians of the massacres in the Ottoman Era, 100 years ago, when hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Christians were slaughtered."
The Armenian genocide began in April 1915, as authorities of the Ottoman Empire rounded up, arrested, and massacred up as many as 1.5 million of the Armenian people, a minority group in the empire who were overwhelmingly Christian.
According to Fr. Halemba, Christians in Iraq "are not being helped, either by the central Iraqi government or by the Kurdish regional government," and so "they feel like second-class citizens."
"Naturally there is aid from outside," he said. "But the Christians can only come by it through their own efforts. We have true heroes of neighbourly love in Iraq. Bishops, priests and members of religious orders, but also lay people, have done exemplary work on behalf of their fellow men and women."
The immediate challenge facing the displaced Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan is winter, Fr. Halemba said.
"It can get very cold in Kurdistan, and it can snow. The rains are already starting to come. There are efforts underway to re-house the people from tents into accommodation containers."
"But in my opinion the greatest challenge is the mentality of the people. Have they already decided to turn their backs on Iraq and the Middle East forever? This is where we must take action and give the people hope."
It is important that the displaced "once again believe in the future of their ancient and beautiful country," reflected Fr. Halemba. "So the international community must work towards ensuring that the government in Baghdad is strengthened and incorporates all the religious and ethnic groups in the country."
"Only in this way can ISIS be ultimately defeated."