The Knights of Columbus are to raise and donate $2 million to help save Karemlash, a predominantly Christian town on Iraq’s Nineveh Plain that was invaded and ransacked by ISIS before being liberated by coalition forces last November.

In a statement, the Knights said the move, which aims to resettle hundreds of families after they were evicted when ISIS took over the town in 2014, “will give many Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq hope for the future.”

The Knights’ action matches a similar donation by Hungary’s government, which recently donated $2 million to save Teleskov, another predominately Christian town on the Nineveh Plain.

About 1,000 families have now moved back to that town which the Knights say shows how such actions “can actually work in restoring pre-ISIS populations to their home and towns.”

The charity will work with the archdiocese of Erbil to achieve the resettlement. The archdiocese currently looks after the largest population of Christian refugees in Iraq, including many of the residents of Karemlash.

“The terrorists desecrated churches and graves and looted and destroyed homes,” said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson during his annual report at the Knights of Columbus 135th annual convention this week. “Now we will ensure that hundreds of Christian families driven from their homes can return to these two locations and help to ensure a pluralistic future for Iraq.”

The Knights are urging their councils as well as parishes, other Church groups, and individuals to help to donate $2,000 ­— the approximate cost of resettling one family. “Just a thousand such donations would be necessary to reach the $2 million goal,” the Knights said in the statement, adding that the rebuilding work “will begin this week and money will begin flowing to the project immediately.”

Anderson urged Knights to get behind the initiative by paraphrasing the words of Sir Winston Churchill in 1940: “Put your confidence in us,” he said. “We shall not fail or falter, we shall not weaken or tire. We will give you the tools and together we will finish the job.”

In March I travelled to Karemlash with Father Benedict Kiely, the founder of Nasarean.org, a charity that helps persecuted Christians. Once an oasis of peace and relative prosperity, we found the town deserted, churches and cemeteries desecrated, and almost every residential property firebombed in an attempt by ISIS to stop its inhabitants returning.

Resettlement of Karemlash, which is just 9 miles from Mosul, will therefore be a challenge. Many of the families who lived there have left Iraq possibly never to return, while those that remained in refugee camps have lost almost everything and will probably have to live with new Muslim neighbors whom they distrust (many Iraqi and Kurdish Muslims sided with ISIS, did little to stop them invading, or looted the houses of Christians when they were evicted).

Nonetheless, the example of Teleskov is a hopeful one, and during our trip we encountered enterprising citizens of Karemlash who were keen to return to the town and make a new start. More will be willing if the Iraqi government, assisted by the international community, can guarantee security and therefore offer the necessary stability to return to a normal life, embark on reconstruction, rebuild businesses and create jobs.

 

Knights’ eloquent sign

In addition to helping Karemlash, the Knights of Columbus also announced it had partnered with the U.S. bishops conference to hold a “Week of Awareness” for persecuted Christians beginning Nov. 26.

Pope Francis has praised the Knights especially for its help on behalf of persecuted Christians, as well as for defending and promoting the sanctity of marriage and the dignity and beauty of family life. 

In a message to its annual convention this week, the Holy Father expressed his “gratitude” for the Knights’ commitment to persecuted Christians, and commended the Knights of Columbus Refugee Relief Fund as "an eloquent sign of your order's firm commitment to solidarity and communion with our fellow Christians."

Since 2014, the fund has donated more than $13 million for humanitarian assistance primarily in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding region.

The Knights’ advocacy was also decisive in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2016 genocide declaration for Christians and other religious minorities in the region. This designation was reaffirmed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week.

Many Christians we spoke to in Iraq in March expressed hope that President Trump would help them, although so far, the kind of assistance they were expecting — especially security — has been lacking.

Instead, almost all of the vital humanitarian assistance for the country's persecuted Christians has come not from governments (with the notable exception of Hungary) or the U.N., but from the Church — particularly the Knights of Columbus and the charity, Aid to the Church in Need.

Knights of Columbus donation page.