Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Christians are the glue that hold the mosaic of the Middle East’s societies together, through their presence, services, and charity they extend to Muslims and other ethno-religious groups. Christians stand in the way of the Middle East plunging into the kind of endless sectarian war desired by ISIS and other militant Islamists, who have targeted Christians for persecution and genocide to achieve a new social order made in their own image.
But the Christian communities have continued to hang on, thanks to the lifelines provided to their churches and agencies through an interlocking alliance of different Catholic agencies, whose cooperative efforts remain largely unsung. One of those players has been Catholic Relief Services, which is active in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, providing support to both displaced and refugee Christians, as well as Muslim and Yazidis that have suffered the cruelties of war in Iraq and Syria.
In this Register interview, Maronite Catholic Bishop Gregory Mansour, a longtime champion of human rights and the Middle East’s Christians, and board chairman of Catholic Relief Services, discusses the role CRS has played in this alliance to sustain the Middle East Christians, and to help them fulfill their mission of building peace in their societies.
In the Middle East, there are millions of internally displaced persons and refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq, and some of those same people have been victims of genocide, particularly the Christians, Yazidis, and other ethno-religious minorities. How does CRS do its work to both serve the displaced and the refugee, and also take in special consideration for particularly vulnerable Christian and minority populations?
Good question. CRS can only do work in a place where they're invited. And in places where they're not invited, they choose to work through the local Caritas, the local Catholics.
In other words, we help the local people on the ground who are already doing that work. We help them to do their work even better, especially by getting international funds to them.
So, we’re not coming in as the Americans doing the relief work, we’re coming in as the Americans in a fascinating way. And that is, we get no credit, but we give all the support that's needed. And it's a local Caritas that then gets the credit and does the work with our support. So, that's a strategic decision for Catholic Relief Services to do what is called capacity building. And especially to do capacity building with our Catholic partners, part of the international Caritas community of 165 different Caritas organizations.
So how does this play out in Iraq, for example?
In some places, CRS just gets behind Caritas Iraq. Other places, they get behind Archbishop [Bashar] Warda and his refugee camps, other places they are very clearly CRS, other places they work for the local Latin or for Chaldean bishop.
How would you describe CRS’s relationship with other Catholic agencies working to provide relief and services to people in the area?
That's a good point. Let's get the whole landscape. You have Aid to the Church in Need, you have the Knights of Columbus, you have CNEWA [Catholic Near East Welfare Association]. You have Jesuit Relief Services. And then you might have different religious communities, like the Good Shepherd Sisters, the Dominican Sisters, a variety of others. It's not a cacophony, however. There's a lot of goodwill when it comes to the cooperation of the Christian communities in Syria and Iraq. And CRS plays an important role, because as I mentioned we're the biggest of the Caritas, so people do look to us.
Can you describe what CRS is doing specifically to bring aid to persecuted Christians from Iraq and in Syria?
Well, as you know CRS is not specifically for serving Christians only. But CRS is in many Christian areas [of the Middle East] doing the work. But it's humanitarian work for Christian and Muslim alike, just like most of the efforts in Iraq and Syria by all the different Catholic groups. It's for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
So, what are we doing right now for Christians in Iraq and Syria? To be honest, we're only doing 10% of what we could do if there were more security on the ground.
So, now they have some security in those areas [formerly controlled by ISIS]. The one thing that CRS is just waiting to do is a livelihood program for those who want to come back: so they can till the land, milk the cows, grow the crops, have sewing machines, auto mechanic tools — those kind of things.
How do Christians in the Middle East benefit from CRS, Caritas, and other Christian agencies on the ground serving both Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups alike?
That's a good question, because some people maintain we should only help our own: let Saudi Arabia help the Sunnis, and let Iran help the Shiites. So, to answer your question, it’s just who we are. It's not because the people we serve are Christian or Muslim. It's just that we're Christian, and it has always been [serving] Christians or anyone else who has great need. And that's one of the things that inspires many Muslims to love Christianity.
The other thing is that we don't have a litmus test for those who come to us. We talk to the bishops in Syria and they tell me their priests now are social workers for Christians and Muslims alike. Because the Christians are so well connected with charitable organizations, the vast majority of the service in Syria and Iraq is from the Christians, and that reality is not missed by an educated Muslim.
Are you concerned that religious minorities and Christian victims of genocide have not yet been getting the same access to U.S. aid through the United Nations that others have been able to achieve?
Yes, and I'm very happy that the Trump administration has looked at that and said, “why do we always have to partner only with the U.N.?” Nothing wrong with the U.N. But what about all these Christian groups that are helping themselves and helping Christian and Muslim alike? Don't they also deserve government aid? I mean I'm a taxpayer, why does my taxpayer money always have to go through the United Nations? Nothing wrong with the U.N., I’m not criticizing them. But why can't it go through Christian groups who are working to help Christians and non-Christians alike, and who are doing it with a little bit more passion, a little less overhead, and a lot more love?
What would you make of what the U.S. and the U.N. effort to aid victims of genocide has been so far in Iraq?
It's been nothing, almost nothing. It was just, it was just a statement. There's been no concrete action. That's what Congressman Chris Smith’s bill was all about. And I think that's what the Vice President Mike Pence said at In Defense of Christians with the big announcement he was making: that some of the refugees who are being taken care of by Catholic organizations will get some aid, as well as the U.N.
So, what would you say right now are the primary concerns or needs of Middle East Church leaders, and how can we help them?
The first is to really pray. And fast. For the Christians, and for all people, Christians and Muslims alike in the Middle East, who are the victims of armed criminal gangs. To pray for them, to fast for them, because this kind of an evil, it can only be defeated I think with prayer and fasting. Second is strong advocacy in the U.S. government for policies that can bring peace to Iraq and Syria. And third, I think as a humanitarian, just continue in our humanitarian work for the for the minorities and especially for the victims of genocide in Iraq and Syria. And then for all the Christians of the Middle East, so that they know that Western Christians think of them and feel that they're part of the family, they’re just as deserving of our care as members of the body of Christ.
Thank you, Bishop Gregory, is there anything that we haven't discussed about CRS’s work in the Middle East that you would feel would be important for people to know?
The work of CRS combines Catholic generosity with American ingenuity. And because of that, CRS can work in countries in which the Catholics are a small minority in the country, but because Catholic Relief Services has that generosity and has the creative way, we don't have to get the credit, we don't have to do all the work. We can find people on the ground, especially Catholics on the ground who are already doing this, and come to their aid. And for a bishop who's a minority in a country which is mostly non-Catholics or non-Christians, for a bishop to see the work of the Catholic Church throughout the world coming to his side really helps witness to the Gospel, witness to God's love in the world.
I think the more people see CRS as the outreach of the Catholics of America to the rest of the world, especially the poor, the more they see and support that here at home, the stronger CRS is, and the stronger the local Church is in each of the places where CRS supports the local Church.
This interview has been edited for length. In lieu of comments, please pray for the people of the Middle East, and how best to personally support the Church’s efforts in the region.