WASHINGTON — Having lost their homes, their heritage and their sense of dignity, Iraqi Christians victimized by the Islamic State feel abandoned by earthly powers, but their faith in God has only grown, an Iraqi religious sister told members of Congress on May 13.
The faith of homeless Iraqi Christians is “increasing more and more,” Dominican Sister Diana Momeka told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Many of the displaced lived in devastating conditions — families taking shelter in containers, parents without jobs and children without an education.
But Sister Diana insisted the spirit of the people has not been broken by the adversity.
“It’s making us stronger,” she said. “We were displaced, yet we feel that the hand of God is still with us. … In the midst of this darkness, this suffering, we see that God is holding us,” she explained, adding that it is a “gift of the Holy Spirit” to be able to stay and have faith through hardship.
Sister Diana is part of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, originally from Mosul in northern Iraq. Islamist militants bombed their convent in 2009, and after the prioress sought protection from the local government and found none, Sister Diana and the community moved to Qaraqosh.
The onslaught caught up to them last summer. As the Islamic State (ISIS) swept through parts of Iraq and Syria, establishing a strict caliphate, more than 120,000 Iraqis were displaced on the Nineveh Plain, faced with the decision to convert to Islam, stay and pay a jizya tax to ISIS or leave immediately.
The religious community moved again, this time to Kurdistan. “We were driven out of our homes in a couple of hours,” the nun described, “without any warning.”
Almost no Christians are left in Mosul, Sister Diana said, except for about 100 Christian hostages of ISIS.
Slated to testify before a congressional committee as part of an Iraqi delegation, Sister Diana’s application for a visa was initially denied by the local U.S. consulate because of her status as an internally displaced person.
Amid mounting pressure, she was later able to enter the United States to testify on “ISIS’ war on religious minorities.”
“I am but one, small person — a victim myself of ISIS and all of its brutality,” Sister Diana stated in written testimony before the committee.
“Coming here has been difficult for me — as a religious sister, I am not comfortable with the media and so much attention,” she admitted. “But I am here, and I am here to ask you, to implore you, for the sake of our common humanity, to help us.”
The Christians in northern Iraq lost “most everything” when ISIS destroyed and desecrated churches, shrines and other sacred sites, she said.
“We lost everything. ... Every Christian who’s living in the region of Kurdistan: We feel we don’t have dignity anymore. When you lose your home, you lose everything you have. You lose your heritage, your culture.”
When monasteries that have existed for centuries have been destroyed, it is a sign that “your history is gone; you are nothing anymore,” the Iraqi nun explained.
Children are growing up without proper education, and whole families’ lives have “changed tremendously,” she said. “We’re abandoned: That’s how we feel.”
The local and regional authorities have been of little help to the displaced, Sister Diana said in her testimony, calling their reaction to the crisis “at best modest and slow.” The Kurdish government allowed Christian refugees to enter its borders but did not offer any more significant aid.
The Church in Kurdistan has been a big help to Christians, though, providing food, shelter and other support, she noted.
Ultimately, the displaced want to return home and not be resettled elsewhere, witnesses at the hearing insisted.
“There are many who say, ‘Why don’t the Christians just leave Iraq and move to another country and be done with it?’” Sister Diana stated in her testimony. “Why should we leave our country? What have we done?”
“The Christians of Iraq are the first people of the land,” she said. “While our ancestors experienced all kinds of persecution, they stayed in their land, building a culture that has served humanity for the ages.
“We want nothing more than to go back to our lives; we want nothing more than to go home.”