NEW HAVEN, Conn. — “I have a bad heart. We thank God the Church was there for us. We do not have trust in anybody else,” explained Samir, a grandfather and Syrian Catholic living in housing in Ozal City outside Erbil, Iraq, after his home outside Mosul was destroyed.
Through a translator and via Skype, Samir told the Register, “They gave us a house to live in and regular food — also medicine and treatment at the clinic. … Thank God for the Church and all these people and organizations that helped us. I see this symbol for the Knights of Columbus on the food packages and at the clinic. I do not know them, but God bless them.”
Nisha, mother of three boys and a Chaldean Catholic living in the Karamdes Displaced Person Camp in Erbil, receives similar help. Their family farm was filled with mines, all the equipment taken or destroyed, and their home was burned. Her husband was able to get work in Erbil.
“We have our three boys and thank God we have been safe here in Erbil these three years,” Nisha said through the same translator. “But we are six people living in one room, together with my mother. We are safe and together, at least. We are able to get food every month from the Church programs.”
Stephen Rasche, an American lawyer who has been on the staff of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil since 2014, has spent the last three years coordinating international aid efforts for displaced Christians fleeing ISIS.
“In going to the groups around the world willing to step up and assist with food, shelter, medicine and temporary education, the Knights were one of the first groups to step forward in a substantive way,” Rasche explained. “They have been by our side since the very beginning.”
Approximately 80,000 displaced Christians in Iraq have been helped by the Knights, he said, explaining that the archdiocese and private Christian aid groups became the primary humanitarian aid providers for these displaced Christians.
“Without question, without the support of the Knights and Aid to the Church in Need, it is absolute fact that the majority of these displaced Christians would already have disappeared from Iraq,” Rasche emphasized. “The Knights and Aid stepped in where governments and the United Nations, for policy reasons, did not act.”
Since 2014, the Knights have provided just under $3.1 million to the Erbil Archdiocese to assist the Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean Christians, as well as Yazidis. The donations provide food, shelter, medicines, temporary education and other supplies for thousands of Christians.
Said Rasche, “Three and a half years ago, nobody among the Iraqi community knew who the Knights were. Now, wherever they see that symbol of the K of C, they know this is honest help, that these people really are their supporters. They know it’s a symbol for positive Christian charity.”
Sweeping Charitable Work
With 1.9 million members worldwide, the Knights of Columbus is the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the world. In 2016, they set an all-time record for worldwide charitable donations that totaled $177,445,533. Added to this figure was more than 75 million hours of service performed by Knights and Knights councils valued at more than $1.8 billion.
An annual report of the organization’s 2016 charitable giving will be a highlight of the Knights of Columbus Convention Aug. 1-3 in St. Louis, Missouri, which will be attended by 2,000 Knights, their families and members of the clergy, according to Knights of Columbus spokesman Joseph Cullen. “The convention is a look back in celebration of the accomplishments of the past year,” he said, “and a planning session to work on where we need to go next year.”
According to previous years’ reports, the Knights’ charitable gifts cover a broad spectrum of causes and projects, from those that help a single person in need to missions that impact tens of thousands both home and abroad.
In recent years, under Anderson’s leadership, relief for persecuted Middle East Christians has been one of the Knights’ major missions. Other ventures include relief work during disasters, such as the Louisiana floods and Haiti earthquake; rebuilding and repairing inner-city schools and houses; supporting Special Olympics and the intellectually disabled and helping the physically handicapped; championing pro-life work; helping to fund Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in 2015; backing Catholic journalism; and supporting vocations.
Range of Recipients
The Knights of Columbus’ charity includes a wide range of activities, from aiding soup kitchens, food banks and inner city schools to conducting blood drives, assisting veterans at VA hospitals, sponsoring parish events and upgrading the homes of needy people.
Partnering with the American Wheelchair Mission, the Knights in February 2016 presented and donated wheelchair No. 50,000 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. Since that milestone, they are now up to more than 57,000 wheelchairs distributed worldwide.
“After the 2015 racial unrest in the city of Baltimore, the Knights, at my request, provided assistance to Catholic inner-city schools that offer the hope for a better life to many in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore told the Register.
And, thanks to the “Knights of Columbus Coats for Kids” initiative, more than 300,000 new coats have been given to children in need since 2009.
The Special Olympics and Habitat for Humanity also benefited from the Knights’ aid. In 2015 the organization donated $15.4 million to the former and $742,000 to the latter.
And with generous funding from the Knights, since the 1970s, millions of people have been able to view papal events and canonizations broadcast from Rome. Help for the Vatican includes financially supporting the Holy Father’s visits to Mexico, Cuba, the Philippines and World Youth Day in Poland.
For Pope Francis’ U.S. visit in 2015, the Knights contributed approximately $3 million to assist the three host archdioceses, plus the World Meeting of Families.
The organization also helps support Catholic journalism, including EWTN. (Disclaimer: The Register, a service of EWTN, does not receive any direct funds from the Knights.)
Worldwide vocations also receive Knightly benevolence. Since 1981, approximately $75 million has gone to support seminarians and those in religious formation.
A significant area of Knights’ charity, both in manpower and financial support, is focused on massive disaster-relief projects, such as the still-ongoing recovery in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and more recently the 2016 devastating floods in Louisiana.
When the floods hit, Delores Acosta of St. Amant, Louisiana, helped local Knights cook food for nearby victims. No one realized the following day their own town would be hit. “I lost my trailer, furniture, lots of my clothing, my car — everything went,” said Acosta, who is a widow.
She received a major surprise at church, where Knights from different councils brought food for the displaced people.
“Carl Anderson came from Connecticut and presented me with a check,” Acosta said, still overwhelmed by the gesture. “It was beyond me. I never expected it. Poor little me that never expected anything got to meet the Supreme Knight. I stood there and cried.”
Anderson had come to survey the damage, see how help from the Knights was going, and what further efforts were needed.
‘A Wonderful Example’
Helping persecuted Christians is a central concern for the Knights.
“The Knights of Columbus have been great friends to the Little Sisters in many ways. They protected our First Amendment rights in the HHS mandate court cases through their support of our legal counsel, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty,” Sister Frances of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Enfield, Connecticut, told the Register.
“Perhaps the most moving thing we did was a joint project in which the Knights brought a young Christian girl from Iraq to Connecticut for medical treatment with her mother,” Sister Frances continued. “It was a wonderful example of the Knights’ support for those who have been persecuted for their faith by ISIS, and it was wonderful for us to be able to assist in this.”
In their ongoing effort to help persecuted Christians, the Knights also spearheaded an effort that resulted in a major report in March 2016 prompting a bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives (393-0) in favor of a resolution declaring ISIS is committing genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. A similar declaration came from the State Department.
“The Knights were critical in the passing of the genocide resolution in Congress,” affirmed Rasche. “The Knights supplied much of the core investigation work,” and that “included sending their own people and lawyers to Iraq to personally interview survivors and to work with us.”
Since then, the Knights have helped press for continued action, such as supporting the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017 (H.R. 390), which passed in the House of Representatives last month and concerns victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria.
Other threatened Christian communities supported by the Knights are in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Funds from the Knights guarantee these small Christian communities have the necessities of food, shelter, medical care and clothing, as well as catechesis and education.
The gratitude of those they help reflects their overall mission.
As displaced Christian Nisha told the Register, “The Church programs are everything for us. You say the Knights of Columbus support these programs. Please tell them they are beautiful people.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.