WASHINGTON — Scores of Iraqi Christians will be moving into their new homes in Slovakia this month, far from the crowded camp in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where they found refuge after fleeing the brutal advance of the Islamic State in 2014.
Their journey to a new life in the West began in December 2015, just days before Christmas. A chartered Airbus brought the 149 displaced Iraqi Christians to Slovakia, where they had been formally approved for resettlement.
“The Islamic State has destroyed their country; they need a home or they will be stuck in this limbo, living in shipping containers, unable to work,” said Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.
Slovakia accepted the displaced Iraqi Christians after Shea and other members of a small team of U.S. religious-freedom advocates devoted months of patient work to finding them a home and raising funds to help with the resettlement effort.
“They are not recognized by the United States or the United Nations as ‘refugees’ because of a legal technicality — they did not flee outside their country of Iraq — and thus they are barred from resettling in the U.S. and most other countries,” Shea explained.
She credits this initiative as the “first successful private attempt to resolve the shameful state of affairs” that has left so many displaced Iraqi Christians “indefinitely indigent and abandoned.”
While legal technicalities have kept some persecuted Christians out of the pipeline for resettlement abroad, activists like Shea have also raised concerns about the small number of Syrian-Christian refugees accepted for resettlement in the United States. She blames Washington’s reliance on the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which provides the initial screening. Shea says most of these Christians take shelter in church buildings in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region and avoid U.N.-sponsored camps because of security concerns, thus dooming their chances of emigrating to the West.
The core group organizing the promising resettlement of Iraqis in Slovakia included Johnnie Moore, an author and advocate for persecuted Christians in the Middle East; Glenn Beck, the television and radio talk-show host, who tapped his vast audience to underwrite the effort; and Mark Burnett, an Emmy-award-winning television producer. In Erbil, they worked closely with Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean-Catholic priest, who runs the Mar Elia camp for displaced Christians.
The project took flight after Shea, a respected authority on global religious-freedom issues, grew increasingly frustrated with the international community’s failure to stop the Islamic State (ISIS) or effectively protect religious minorities targeted by the terrorist organization. Over the past year, she has lobbied in vain to press the U.S. government to designate ISIS’ treatment of Iraqi Christians as “genocide.”
In July 2014, like a bolt from the blue, Islamic State fighters swept through Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, imposing a sentence of forced conversion or death to non-Muslims who failed to evacuate.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fled their homes ahead of the Islamists’ brutal advance across the Nineveh Plain.
Most found refuge in Erbil, where they have received protection from Kurdish fighters and have depended on assistance from church groups. The Knights of Columbus have raised millions of dollars to help Christians in Erbil. For more than a year, they have waited for their attackers to be pushed out of their homeland and defeated. And though Church leaders in the region have urged the displaced Christians not to give up hope, a growing number have begun to consider the once unthinkable: emigration abroad where they can start over and live in peace.
“We should learn from the evacuation of the 149 Iraqi Christians,” said Father Benedict Kiely, a priest from the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., who has worked closely with Shea and also established Nasarean, a nonprofit that raises funds for Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic agency that helps Christians in Erbil.
Father Kiely has met with Iraqi Christians living in the camps , and he believes that the Church should help families who want to move on with their lives, as well as those who are prepared to wait out the conflict.
“Those two positions are not opposed to each other,” Father Kiely told the Register.
This year, Pope Francis has encouraged churches across Europe to sponsor refugees from the Middle East and Africa. But European nations have struggled to address the humanitarian crisis created by the vast movement of people crossing their borders.
Eastern and Central European countries, like Hungary and Slovakia, have expressed caution about accepting the newcomers, amid reports that Islamic terrorists are posing as refugees, among other concerns.
Still rebuilding their economies after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these European countries have more experience with emigration than immigration. And they question whether they possess the economic and social resources needed to welcome a large influx of people from another culture and faith.
“Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico says his country will accept only Christian refugees, as it would be ‘false solidarity’ to force Muslims to settle in a country without a single mosque,” The New York Times reported in September.
Thus, Shea and her collaborators faced several key challenges as they moved ahead with their plan: vetting suitable candidates for resettlement, finding a country that would welcome them and raising money to cover immediate and future costs.
Beck’s Nazarene Fund, established to aid the evacuation of vulnerable Christians, has raised $12 million.
Pastor Johnnie Moore, the author of the 2015 book Defying ISIS: Preserving Christianity in the Place of Its Birth and in Your Own Backyard and a leading advocate for persecuted Christians, joined the influential media figure to raise awareness about the lack of options available to persecuted Christians.
“While the world watched in near-total silence, their ancient churches and monasteries were destroyed, their children were sold on slave markets, their property was confiscated, and those who survived have faced extortion and continued threats of kidnapping and beheading,” Beck toldThe Christian Post, as he marked the successful effort to resettle the displaced Iraqi Christians.
“While we wish we had the resources to save everyone, I’m hopeful that this trip was a meaningful step in the right direction to help those who cannot help themselves.”
Shea wanted the initiative to become a model for other private groups eager to help. Likewise, she knew mistakes would undermine that dream.
She hired a specialist to interview suitable candidates at the Mar Elia camp in Erbil and conduct extensive background checks. Meanwhile, the team looked for European countries that would be prepared to heed Pope Francis’ invitation, and Slovakia emerged as a good fit.
Father Peter Brenkus, a Slovakian-Catholic priest from the Diocese of Nitra, who has developed a plan to welcome and integrate Iraqi Christians into the local community, told the Register that Church leaders in Slovakia had been following the situation of Christians in Iraq and Syria.
“The Church organized a special financial collection in March 2015 to help them, followed by several projects organized for Christians in refugee camps,” said Father Brenkus, who said the Slovakian bishops agreed to take part in the resettlement project.
But Father Martin Kramara, the spokesman for the Slovakian bishops’ conference, acknowledged that the effort poses a challenge for a country like Slovakia.
“Slovakia — the capital city [Bratislava] is one exception — is not accustomed to large numbers of foreigners,” said Father Kramara, who described his country as “monocultural.”
“I would not say our people are inhospitable, but it is true that many of them have grown afraid — seeing and hearing what the media report on migrants,” Father Kramara told the Register in an email interview.
He expressed the hope that the common faith shared by Slovakians and the Iraqi arrivals would help “break the ice” and said the local Church would “sensitize the people, in order to move public opinion from suspicion to support.”
In previous years, he noted, the Church has extended help to asylum seekers of all faiths, and most have been Muslim.
“But the present situation is complex, and we needed to begin somewhere to get involved. So we started with those who are the most endangered in the Middle-Eastern conflicts — and with those who have the highest integration potential in Slovakia — Christians.”
Welcoming the Newcomers
On Dec. 10, when the Iraqis first arrived by a chartered flight from Erbil, several Slovakian bishops were on hand to welcome them at the airport, and the newcomers received Christmas presents from local Catholics.
An Iraqi priest traveled from Rome to celebrate Mass on Christmas at the receiving center, where the Iraqis’ health status and other issues are being addressed at present.
By the end of January, they will move into their new homes in Nitra and its surroundings.
“Father Brenkus, with several other priests and lay Catholics, and in cooperation with the Slovak Catholic Charity, is preparing a project of integration for our brothers and sisters from Iraq,” explained Father Kramara. “We prefer not calling them ‘refugees’ — to avoid any labeling.”
Language training, legal and employment assistance and spiritual and psychological care will be provided.
“Regarding the resettlement of more people who need help: The Church in Slovakia is certainly open,” added Father Kramara.
“We have to respect the state’s representatives, however. Without their consent and their assistance, we would be unable to help anybody.”
“If the pilot project goes well, there is a reasonable chance it will continue,” he added.
Nina Shea, for her part, predicts that the Slovakians will come to appreciate the special gifts the Iraqi Christians will offer their host country.
“These people are an asset to Slovakia, a poor country that is suffering from a brain drain and birth dearth,” said Shea, echoing the arguments she presented to Slovakian officials. “The Iraqis are part of the same Catholic faith, with the same value system.”
“This group includes skilled professionals: a scientist, a lab technician, entrepreneurs and teachers. This will be good for Slovakia,” she added.
Looking ahead, the team of U.S. religious-freedom advocates hopes that the Iraqi-Christian community in Atra will grow and thrive, after the first group has put down roots and can welcome newcomers from Erbil.
According to Father Kiely, Father Bazi told his flock after their flight landed in Slovakia, “You are now Slovakians — your hearts are Iraqi, but you are now Slovakians.”
Father Kiely noted the Iraqi priest’s deep gratitude to all involved in the effort.
In the short term, though, Father Brenkus, who will oversee the Iraqis’ transition to Slovakian life, is prepared for some tough moments.
“They have experienced a very traumatic situation,” he said, and their new home is not “paradise.”
“They know that not everybody likes to see refugees,” he concluded.
“It is very important: to let them feel that we love them and that we will stand by their side. They are our brothers and sisters in faith.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.