U.S. Citizens Resettle Iraqi Christians in Slovakia, Offering Model of Hope

WASHINGTON — What do you do when terrorists force fellow Christians to seek shelter in refugee camps, with no clear hope of returning to their ancestral homes in Iraqi or starting over abroad?

If you are a group of can-do Americans who have lost patience with the international community’s failure to defeat the Islamic State or provide long-term solutions for displaced Iraqi Christians stuck in limbo, you launch your own resettlement plan and find a country that will host a resilient group of Christians ready to begin anew.

Now, 149 Iraqi Christians will be moving into their new homes in Slovakia, which formally approved them for resettlement. In December, just days before Christmas, they left Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where they found protection after fleeing the brutal advance of Islamic State in 2014, and boarded a chartered Airbus flight to the West.

“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 Commissioner 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. Meanwhile, she has lobbied in vain to press the U.S. government to designate ISIS’ treatment of Iraqi Christians as “genocide.”


A Winning Team

The core group organizing the resettlement of the displaced Iraqi Christians 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.

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. 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.

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, 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.


Few Options

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 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.” Beck told The Christian Post, as he marked the resettlement of the displaced Iraqi Christians.


Private-Group Model

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

By the end of January, the new arrivals were to move into their new homes in Nitra and its surroundings.  

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.”

In the short term, though, Father Brenkus, who will oversee the Iraqis’ transition to Slovakian life, said, “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.”