Iraqi Christians endure despite persecution, Chaldean bishop says

Refugees from Iraq fled their homes and now take shelter at the syric catholic Mrtshmony Shrine in Erbil Iraq Credit Aid to the Church in Need CNA 5 13 15 An internally displaced Iraqi Christian family take shelter at the Syriac Catholic Mrtshmony Shrine in Erbil. | Aid to the Church in Need.

Iraq's Christians have suffered persecution for centuries, yet their faith has survived and the community will remain, provided their material needs are met, a Chaldean Catholic bishop has said.

"The story of suffering of Iraqi Christians is an ongoing phenomenon," Bishop Bawai Soro, auxiliary bishop of the Chaldean Eparchy of Saint Peter the Apostle of San Diego, told CNA in an interview. "For two thousand years, it's a story of suffering, a suffering Church," he added, a "Church of the martyrs."

Bishop Soro, a native of Iraq who came to the United States as a refugee in 1976, related of how his grandparents had told him of the massacre of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in the region around the time of World War I, where hundreds of thousands of Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire were killed or dispersed by the new progressive government.  

"The same thing, the whole story was repeated again after 100 years," he said. "But amazingly, if my grandparents survived this difficulty and were able to hand their faith to the next generations, this suffering generation will do the same."

Bishop Soro spoke with CNA June 7 after a press conference on Capitol Hill for the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017, a bill that would let the U.S. distribute humanitarian aid directly to churches in Iraq and Syria so that it reaches Christian genocide victims there.

There have been many reports that U.S. aid is not reaching Christians, because either they are not in the U.N. refugee camps or the aid gets swallowed up in the bureaucracy of the Iraqi central or local governments. The bill, supported by Bishop Soro, would look to ensure that aid reaches those who need it most. The bill passed the U.S. House on Tuesday and will move to the Senate.

"The current situation of Christians in Iraq and Syria remains very fragile," Bishop Soro stated at the press conference. "As a religious minority, Christians still suffer from remaining elements of radical Islamist groups and their policies."

Christians in Iraq have drastically dwindled in number since the U.S. war in Iraq began in 2003, dropping from around 1.5 million to below 300,000.

After the Islamic State swept through northern Iraq in 2014, killing and displacing those Yazidis, Christians, Muslims, and others who refused to submit to their theocracy, refugee families fled east to Kurdistan, and have lived in temporary shelters around Erbil.

Their situation is an emergency, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the House panel on global human rights, stated at Wednesday's press conference, as the private aid has been stretched to its limits and, according to Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, they are expected to face "severe food shortages."

Christians have also been "undercut" by aid groups that "would like to be politically correct" and believe in helping all persons equally, Bishop Soro said. Christians and other minorities need more aid from these groups, he insisted, because they may not receive any international aid from the UN or countries like the U.S.

"I think the American Church has a mission to go out of the political correctness when helping Christians is concerned, and to address the needs of the Christians," he insisted to CNA.

Christians in America also need to "continue the political pressure" and hold the U.S. government accountable on the equitable distribution of aid and "directly help the Christian communities," he said.

Yet, although it is vital for the immediate needs of Iraq's Christians, they must also have the means to support themselves and live comfortably in the future with their homes rebuilt and with access to water, electricity, and health care.

Also, as citizens of Iraq they must be able to enjoy all the rights they are entitled to, he continued. "After the short-term financial needs are met, constitutional freedom and liberties are needed in stabilizing the Christians in Iraq and Syria for the long-term," he said.

It is vital to keep Christians in Iraq because they "are, and have always been, the founders of educational and health care institutions" in the region, he stated on Wednesday.

"They often were the peacemakers and the catalysts of reforms," he continued.

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"As a religious minority and as a peace-loving people, they, and they alone, can once more bring together all the major segments of the Iraqi people, Shiites, Sunni, Yazidis, the Kurds, and the rest of the minorities. As a helping agent that delicately and serenely heals the present and offers a promising future."

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