ERBIL, Iraq — Dust covers your clothes and sticks in your throat as you drive into the abandoned sports complex, which now houses more than 120,000 Christians, mainly Syriac Catholic, Chaldean Catholic and Syriac Orthodox, who fled after being driven from their homes last summer by the Islamic State (ISIS). This refugee camp, the Brazilian Sports Center, as it is known, is on the outskirts of Ankawa, the Christian section of the Kurdish capital, Erbil, of Iraq.
The men sit around idly, as they are not able to find work. But there are glimmers of hope: The children are trying to study, proudly carrying their schoolbooks and practicing their English on me, with beautiful smiles.
From the very first moment I arrived in Erbil, one thing became abundantly clear: The situation is far more complicated than our sound-bite culture or a 60-second news report would allow.
These Christians, and other religious minorities, are victims of a wider regional conflict between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Further, many reports about the effectiveness and support the Kurdish government is providing to the Christians appear quite different after speaking with those directly affected.
Although I asked many questions, the real value was in listening to stories from women religious, priests and ordinary families. It was truly humbling to see, in the 21st century, families giving everything just because they are followers of Jesus of Nazareth. When the Islamic State appeared in their ancient Christian cities and villages, where families have lived since before Islam even existed, they were given three options: Convert to Islam, pay the exorbitant tax on Christians or die.
Their homes were marked with the Arabic “N” for Nasarean or Nasrani, identifying them as Christians. My driver and translator, Yohanna (John), had been a professor of political science in Mosul, Iraq; his family owned a successful farm. ISIS occupied the farm, kidnapped his brother and told them to leave. Miraculously, his brother escaped, and they left everything behind, with only the clothes they were wearing — all this because of their faith in Christ.
Everyone I met, including the Dominican nuns of Mosul, had similar stories. These highly educated women fled with just the habits they were wearing. Later, in Erbil, Sister Nazik, a young nun who has a Ph.D. from Oxford University, was telephoned by ISIS: They had found her mobile number in the convent and were demanding to know where the sisters had “hidden the guns.” Needless to say, Sister Nazik refused to speak to them.
The moving, often harrowing stories of Christian refugees clarified why I had decided to come to Erbil, despite the dangers of the journey.
A few weeks before my scheduled departure from my little parish in Stowe, Vt., a suicide attack had occurred by the U.S. Consulate in Ankawa, Erbil. My traveling companion decided it was too dangerous to go — and a senior figure in the U.S. administration advised against the journey.
Friends, family and parishioners asked why I was putting myself in danger. I knew it was not a desire for excitement or adventure, or even martyrdom. In fact, the inspiration for this trip was far simpler: It was a mission from the Lord, to see the actual situation on the ground, to meet the Church authorities and establish the needs and to ensure that the help already sent by so many agencies was being used.
My journey was the culmination of a pilgrimage that began almost a year ago.
Like so many, I was shocked and moved, last summer, when I heard of the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to ISIS. This region, including the Nineveh Plain, has been the home of the Christian community since the time of the apostles.
The Kurdish forces have offered the most effective resistance to ISIS militants. And so tens of thousands of Christians and other minorities, notably the Yazidis, have arrived in Erbil. They live on the streets and in unfinished buildings — in the heat of summer and the freezing temperatures of winter. Many are now living in what they call “containers,” the kind of portable cabins often used here for temporary office space on a construction site.
The Christian refugees are making the very best of a bad situation, but for how long? Moved by their situation, I decided last summer to try to do something to help them, however small — reminded of the Lord’s words that even a cup of water given to a disciple will not be forgotten; important to remember when so many of us feel we are helpless and can do nothing.
Helped by community members in my parish, we founded Nasarean.org — to produce bracelets, lapel pins and car magnets marked with the Arabic “N.” By wearing these items, we remember to pray for them. Confronted with this tragedy, we need to show our solidarity and spur conversations when people ask the meaning of the symbol. Lastly, all the proceeds from the donations for the items are sent directly to Aid to the Church in Need, a papal agency directly helping the Christians in Iraq and Syria.
What is the future for these brave Christian families who are our brothers and sisters in Christ? We cannot forget that it was on the road to Damascus, in Syria, that St. Paul was converted — when Jesus did not say, “Why are you persecuting my Church,” but, “Why are you persecuting me?”
The priests who are running the camps try to put on a brave face for their people and assure them that, soon, they will return home. Privately, most tell me they see emigration as the only possibility.
In fact, I was in Erbil just after the fall of Ramadi, which had terrified the people, because there is nowhere else for them to find shelter if Erbil were to fall. Unfortunately, current U.S. policy is making it extremely difficult to even begin the process of emigration.
“Do you have a message for American Catholics?” I asked one of the Dominican nuns. She told me, “Please tell them how lucky they are to pray in peace, and please ask them to pray for us. For when we pray for each other, we see each other — we are family.”
We must do more than pray. I am haunted by the words of one of the priests running a camp in Erbil: “We will not forget those who helped us. We will not forget those who kept silent.”
Father Benedict Kiely, the pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in
Stowe, Vermont, is the founder of Nasarean.org, which raises funds for
Aid to the Church in Need to help persecuted Christians in Iraq.