Humanitarian Aid to Middle-East Refugees Is Fully Mobilized
But Why Aren't Displaced Christians Making It to the US?
Pope Francis leads by example.
In response to the unprecedented refugee crisis confronting Europe, the Holy Father urged all Catholic parishes and Church entities — from monasteries to seminaries and “every sanctuary of Europe” — to offer shelter to a refugee family during his Sunday Angelus on Sept. 6.
On the same day, a family of four arrived in Italy from Damascus, Syria.
Members of the Melkite Catholic Church, a Byzantine-rite Church in communion with the Holy See, the family was welcomed to a Church-owned apartment by the Vatican City parish of St. Anna’s, which will provide full assistance while the newcomers apply for asylum.
Before leaving for his pilgrimage to Cuba and the United States, Pope Francis stopped to visit the family on his way to the airport, an “emotional” visit in the Pope’s words because he sensed the pain they had experienced.
Church Aid Groups
Catholic Relief Services’ Kevin Hartigan, regional director for the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia, is an extremely busy man. The Register caught up with him via Skype in his Cairo office.
He’s on his way to visit refugee programs in Lebanon and Jordan and just back from Serbia, where he witnessed the “steady and unrelenting” flow of souls from the Middle East, through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, toward Germany and Northern Europe. About 4,000 people were entering Serbia each day in early October, he said.
Hartigan said the humanitarian mobilization he witnessed in Serbia was impressive and efficient. CRS works with Caritas Serbia and an Orthodox Christian charity, Philanthropy, to provide food, water, medical care, hygiene items and translation services to an exhausted population on the move.
CRS also partners with a Muslim group in Belgrade to make sure hot meals are prepared in accordance with halal (Islamic law) requirements. Pork, for example, is prohibited.
Since CRS asks no questions regarding religious affiliation, Hartigan is not sure what percentage of refugees that CRS serves are Christian, but he assumes the “vast majority” are Muslim, especially those coming from Afghanistan, where the number of Christians is negligible.
Then again, few intend to stay in countries along the way, such as Greece, Macedonia, Serbia or Hungary. Most refugees are heading to Europe’s biggest economy: Germany.
According to Hartigan, based on what he heard in Rome at a recent meeting of groups engaged in relief, Catholic communities and individuals in Germany, Austria and Holland have manifested “a big outpouring of generosity. People are responding to the Pope’s call” to shelter and care for the displaced victims of war and terror in the Middle East.
As the original Caritas organization in Europe, founded by a priest in 1897, with a network of 25,000 centers extending into every town, employing 1 million staff and volunteers, Caritas Germany is the largest social-welfare association in the country. Thus, it is well positioned to coordinate the Church’s deep involvement in the crisis.
However, worrisome tensions have flared in Germany already: As a result of at least two fights between Muslim and Christian refugees in northern Germany, a police union leader called for physical segregation of the two religions to reduce tension.
Americans most concerned about violence tearing apart the cradle of Christianity, especially Syria and Iraq, tend to focus on two related aspects of the issue: the persecution of Christian communities and the moral requirement to protect them, most obviously by offering shelter, as the Holy Father urged.
Martin Manna is executive director of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce in metropolitan Detroit and president of its nonprofit arm, the Chaldean Community Foundation. Chaldeans are Eastern-rite Catholics, in communion with the Holy See, who speak a version of Jesus’ native tongue, Aramaic.
Chaldeans, as well as Assyrians, trace their ancestry back to the Mesopotamian civilizations of Babylonia and Assyria, where present-day Iraq is located. The main difference is that most Assyrians are Orthodox Christians, according to Manna, while most Chaldeans are Catholic. They speak the same language.
About 400,000 Chaldeans and Assyrians are in the U.S. Their relatives in Iraq and Syria are in severe distress.
Since 2007, the Chaldean community groups have helped about 30,000 newcomers settle in this country, helping them find jobs and establish credit and establish businesses. (Unfortunately, one of the most high-profile refugee cases involving Chaldeans in recent months involves a group in California being deported for crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.)
“This is a very successful refugee resettlement program because there is so much community support,” explained Manna. “Chaldeans and Assyrians — we are one here — create jobs; we don’t take jobs. With a little support, with economic and religious freedom, our newcomers excel.”
Manna’s parents migrated to Detroit in the late 1960s. Their first five children were born in Baghdad; the next three — including Martin, the youngest — were born in the United States.
Manna is preoccupied with the dire situation in his family’s homeland: “The villages around where my parents were born, on the Nineveh Plain, a biblical area, are empty now because they are under IS (Islamic State) control. Our relatives fled to Kurdistan in northern Iraq, where they are safe for now, but it is a hard life.” Resources are running out for them.
Discrimination Against IDPs?
According to Manna, thousands of displaced Christians want to come to the U.S., but they aren’t allowed.
“I think the U.S. has a moral responsibility to aid these people, especially since, in Iraq, it was U.S. policy that caused the chaos. So we are really frustrated with the administration, because we have seen a slowdown this year in the acceptance of Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria,” the Chaldean leader said.
He added, “They won’t even allow visas because they assume the visitors will seek asylum, and many of our people are called IDPs [internally displaced persons], so they aren’t even granted visas, let alone resettlement, for fear they won’t return.”
The issue of the U.S. State Department denying Iraqi Christians visas gained attention earlier this year when Sister Diana Momeka, a Dominican Sister of St. Catherine of Siena from Mosul, Iraq, was initially denied a visa to come testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Christian persecution.
Sister Diana is categorized as an IDP living in Kurdistan (a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, bordering Turkey), since she fled her monastery with other religious to escape Islamic State terrorists. She testified in person on May 13 at a hearing on “Ancient Communities Under Attack: ISIS’ War on Religious Minorities” and told Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., that Christians who were chased from the Nineveh Plain “feel we are alone. We are abandoned. That is how we feel.”
As Martin Manna observed, and Sister Diana confirmed in her congressional testimony, the Christian population in Iraq and Syria, which is barely surviving, once served as a constructive bridge between cultures in the Middle East.
“If you clear the Middle East of Christians, you are losing a very moderate, educated population, which will lead to more radicalization of the region,” observed Manna.
Highly aware of their own historical role, many Christians have tried to stay in the region, hoping to be able to go back home. But some are losing this hope, and even Christian clerics are increasingly recommending that believers resettle in the West if they can. As a Catholic priest ministering in Kurdistan told The Guardian last spring: “Open the gates; give my people visas” to save them.
Yet Patriarch Louis Sako, who leads the Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad, urged Christians not to leave Iraq this fall.
A new organization was created this summer, the Nineveh Council of America, to lobby Washington policymakers on the fate of ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria, especially Christians and Yazidis.
The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking group particularly persecuted by Islamic State forces because they practice a religion with elements of Islam and Christianity. Some 650,000 lived in the Nineveh Plain. In early October, The Daily Mail broke a horrific story on IS jihadists forcing Yazidi women to abort their unborn children.
According to Delia Kashat, Nineveh Council director for government relations, the group has made headway on Capitol Hill, encouraging lawmakers to write a letter to the president proposing acceptance of more refugees, as Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., did, or sponsor resolutions calling on the U.S. government and United Nations to do more to protect ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria or to declare atrocities against them acts of genocide.
Less progress has been made to increase the low numbers of Christians — or Yazidis, for that matter — given refugee status or asylum in this country.
According to information provided to the Register by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), in Fiscal Year 2015 (Oct. 1, 2014-Sept. 30, 2015), the United States admitted approximately 1,700 Syrian refugees. Of those, 90 are “members of religious minorities, including Christians,” so fewer than 100 Christians were resettled in the U.S., despite cataclysmic offenses against their communities.
Regarding Iraq, PRM provided data stretching back eight years: “Of the more than 125,000 Iraqi refugees the United States has admitted since 2007, nearly 40% are members of religious minorities,” which sounds much better than Syria, but since the office provided neither annual breakdowns nor did it use the word “Christian,” it’s impossible to discern recent trends.
Even the congressional proposals seem to avoid the word “Christian,” referring instead to “persecuted religious minority refugees,” a habit Manna mentioned.
He observed that even sympathetic members of Congress “don’t want to be seen as giving special attention to Christians, but the harsh reality is these are the people who are being persecuted,” not just in areas now under IS control, but in the rest of the region, too.
“Forget IS — look at Baghdad, which has an alarming kidnapping rate. Christians are under constant pressure; they live in fear as a result of intimidation by the majority population,” he said.
Refugee Reality Warrior
For Ann Corcoran, editor of the Refugee Resettlement Watch website, the fundamental problem is that the current system is rigged against Christians and even Catholic Church charities can’t advocate for them.
The U.S. government relies on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to certify who is a refugee, drawing candidates from refugee camps typically managed by the U.N., which are places Christians in the Middle East avoid.
“Virtually no Christians go to the big [refugee] camps for fear for their safety, so they don’t get into the normal refugee stream, which is how the State Department and HHS [Health and Human Services] normally bring people in,” explained Corcoran.
Based on her review of State Department statistics on refugees accepted from Syria since Jan. 1, 2012, Corcoran estimates that 95% are Sunni Muslim, and approximately 50 people are Christians, with only one Catholic and one Yazidi.
The U.S. government also allows the UNHCR to prioritize which populations from around the world will be resettled here. For example, a review of online data covering refugee arrivals by nationality in Fiscal Year 2015 finds far more refugees coming from Burma (18,386) than from Iraq (12,676). In fact, Burma is the No. 1 source country for refugees this year. According to Corcoran, it’s a result of U.N. priorities, not American choices or interests.
“The U.N. is picking our refugees, and Christians aren’t there,” Corcoran said.
Catholic Thinkers Weigh In
In a review of the book Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st-Century Tragedy by George Marlin (St. Augustine's Press, 2015), Opus Dei Father C. John McCloskey muses, “I sometimes ask myself how we, in what remains of Christendom, cannot at the very least offer refuge in the United States for any Christian family prepared to become citizens.”
Father McCloskey speculates that Western media pay little attention to Christian persecution and politicians avoid the subject because to face it would require action.
He concludes that welcoming Christian refugees to the U.S. is required of us: “[W]e can offer sanctuary and religious freedom to others, while we still have it. … And let us not be blind to the fact that, while it [persecution] may be happening in the Middle East now, it can also happen here.”
Some Catholic thinkers take a bleak view of the religious demographics Western society is witnessing. Professor Peter Kreeft explained to LifeSiteNews: “We’re losing the faith. Europe is almost already lost. The Muslims tried to conquer Europe by force of arms for over 1,000 years, and they failed. Now they are conquering it by the force of numbers, which is a much more powerful weapon.”
Victor Gaetan is an award-winning
international correspondent and a
contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.
- christian persecution
- christian refugees
- christians at risk
- iraqi christians
- syrian christians