The Knights of Columbus fraternal organization has given millions of dollars, resources and political support to help persecuted Christians, especially in Iraq, enabling many families either to find refuge in temporary camps or to be resettled in towns liberated from Islamic extremists.
To find out what the Knights’ perspective is on the current situation, the Register’s Edward Pentin sat down with Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, who was attending the first major government-funded conference in support of persecuted Christians, which took place in Hungary Oct. 11-13.
In this interview, Anderson explains why the Knights of Columbus feel so passionate about helping persecuted Christian minorities in the Middle East, their keen desire that Christians in the region don’t end up permanently displaced, and why personnel in the Trump administration need to change to enable the president to fulfill his campaign promises for persecuted Christians.
What is the current perspective of the Knights of Columbus regarding Iraqi Christians and persecuted Christians in general?
You know, we’ve put — already — $15 million into helping Christians who have been displaced. I think we think of them more as refugees, but many of them are within their own country. We’re going to continue to help; we’re going to need to continue the momentum. They need to be given hope that people care, and that there’s a future for them, and continue to take the next steps. So it’s important that medical assistance, food assistance, education assistance goes forward for those people who are still unable to return to their homes.
But the next stage is to begin to return to their homes and restore towns, so they can do that; otherwise, we don’t want to have happen to the Christians what has happened to the Palestinians: generations displaced, unable to go back to their homes, homeless without hope and without a sense of the future.
You gave a significant amount of funds to help Iraqis resettle in Karemlash, a predominantly Christian town near Mosul. Will you be doing more of that to help resettle Christians in particular towns and villages?
We will continue with Karemlash. We may look for another town and may try to partner with Aid to the Church in Need or with others as we move forward, but I think we need to see this as the private sector, Catholic organizations stepping in to fill the gap where the government is not yet ready or able to provide support.
In his speech at this conference, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said it’s better to go directly through the churches to provide aid, that this way works better than going through governments or the United Nations. Is this your view?
Both ways present certain complications. In our experience, we trust the church structure more. We know the people personally, they know the people they’re working with, and one of the things we’ve found with the Knights of Columbus working with charity through the parishes is that people know each other. They know who really needs help, who doesn’t need so much, who’s effective, productive, who isn’t — that sort of local intelligence, if you will; and, also, commitment to help your neighbor is not just an abstraction, but to help those you know and live with is very important. We think it’s the key to success and why we can be effective through the churches. That’s the best way.
Could the Knights possibly act as a conduit for governments to ensure government funds go to the right people and places?
The Knights of Columbus don’t take money from the government. We might someday in the future perhaps, but there is a Nineveh Reconstruction Committee that could be a vehicle for this, and we would trust that vehicle; we would trust Aid to the Church in Need to do that.
Is that committee a Church-run organization?
It’s a private sector group, but it’s people we have confidence in, in the Church, and Iraq has confidence in, so I think in the short term that’s the best way to move forward.
Sometime ago I had the opportunity to visit Israel. I was with a group of Catholic scholars and rabbis in a Jewish-Catholic dialogue. We visited together the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, and I went through the museum with a rabbi. One of the exhibits in the museum was made up of several rooms in the shape of a European country, and on the wall were identified all the Jewish communities eliminated by the Nazis. We stepped into the first room, and the rabbi looked at the wall — his faced turned white, and he said: “That town was where my family was from.”
We don’t want an entire generation of Christians in the Middle East to have to say that: “That community, that town that no longer exits was where my family was from,” so we have to do something to stop that from happening.
You’re stepping in where others aren’t?
We have the mechanism, we have the network, we have brother Knights with very large, generous hearts, and we’ve gone out into the public, too, to other Catholics, other Americans, so we’ve raised money, but we’ll continue to try to do what we can.
Are you also putting any pressure on President Trump to fulfill his promise to help persecuted Christians?
I wouldn’t characterize it as pressure. I think the big difficulty is that we have to deal with career government employees — government officials appointed by the previous administration. In part, that is an education challenge; in part, it’s a policy challenge. We’re asking for policies to change and practices to change to that which I believe are consistent with what President Trump has said, but it is different to the status quo in those departments.
Are you nevertheless optimistic he will see those through to be able to overcome this impasse?
The administration appointees I, and we, have spoken to are very committed. It’s just a question of having enough of them to actually implement the policy, and that takes some time. I have certain reasonable confidence that as time goes on there’ll be more people in government who will reflect the president’s position on these policies and things will change. What we need to do now is focus on the gap and make sure that we support the Christians in the Middle East until we can bring the government around to doing what they should do. I really believe that the U.S. has a unique moral obligation in Iraq to protect the communities that have suffered so much: the minority communities, but in particular the Christian communities.
Some have criticized the United States, saying these problems worsened considerably after the 2003 Iraq War and that the U.S., therefore, has a moral responsibility.
That’s certainly the view of many Christians, and, abstaining on a judgment on the Iraq War for a minute, it’s very clear that those who have persecuted the Christians in Iraq do so with the excuse that it’s payback for what the Americans have done. That conclusion is inescapable.
So in a way, the indigenous Christian minorities that have been there for thousands of years are now the scapegoats for anti-American feeling. This has become an excuse to target the Christian communities.
The Trump administration recently gave $32 million to Rohingya Muslims being persecuted in Myanmar. Is that of concern?
One of the things that’s been so encouraging about this conference is how many people from so many different countries are coming together to support Christians in the Middle East. What’s embarrassing to me as an American at the conference is how often people have said: “Why is it the American government isn’t doing more to help when the government clearly brings aid to other minorities?” as you’ve just mentioned. There’s no good answer to that question, except to say: There are too many career government officials who disagree with the president’s policy and will not implement it, and that needs to change, frankly.
What are your reflections on Viktor Orban’s speech, in which he called for an end to political correctness in Europe and said that it’s time the European Union and other nations single out persecuted Christians for help? What did you find most helpful and interesting about that speech?
There has been quite a bit of discussion in the past decade about the Christian roots of Europe. Obviously, what’s happening in Hungary is a reflection of that debate. In a Europe that still has a certain amount of diversity, that debate needs to continue, and people need to speak about what is a faithful Christian’s responsibility to his country. And while we may not agree with what the prime minister says on every issue, I think the issues he raises are important for Christians to consider, discuss and come to some kind of resolution on.
Because what’s really going on in Europe today, and I don’t consider myself an expert on Europe, is that there needs to be a very thorough and provocative debate on the future of Europe.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.