As Islamic militants from the group calling itself the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) advance deeper into Iraq, thousands of the country’s minorities have been forced to either flee or face brutal destruction.
According to Catholic Relief Services, more than 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced since January. Those who did not leave their homes were forced to convert to Islam. Those who refused, or who were not given the option, were slaughtered. Graphic images of men, women and children shot or beheaded appeared online via social media in mid-August, reportedly posted by the Islamic State. Among those most heavily persecuted in recent weeks have been the religious minorities, including thousands of Christians, who quickly left behind all of their material possessions as they fled their homes in search of safety.
Mosul Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Nikodemus Daoud, in a television interview on Russia Today TV that later was posted on YouTube, described the situation as “genocide.”
In recent days, Church leaders, including Pope Francis and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, have strongly condemned the extreme violence in Iraq committed by the militants in the name of God.
“No cause, and certainly no religion, can justify such barbarity,” the council said in a statement Aug. 12. “This constitutes an extremely serious offense to humanity and to God who is the Creator.”
Pope Francis acts
Pope Francis, in his Sunday Angelus on Aug. 10, spoke out strongly against the violence.
“The news reports coming from Iraq leave us in dismay and disbelief: thousands of people, including many Christians, driven from their homes in a brutal manner; children dying of thirst and hunger in their flight; women taken and carried off; people massacred; violence every kind; destruction of historical, cultural and religious patrimonies,” he said. “All this gravely offends God and humanity. Hatred is not to be carried in the name of God! War is not to be waged in the name of God!”
In response, the pope appointed Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, as his personal envoy to Iraq to be close to the people and bring them comfort. Cardinal Filoni left for Iraq on Aug. 12, where he is expected to visit Christian refugees and Baghdad.
“It is essentially a mission of encouragement, as well as of trust, of spiritual, moral and psychological support,” Cardinal Filoni told Rome Reports on Aug. 11.
“Our perception is that these Christians, after suffering so many difficulties, may not think that this country is theirs anymore.”
Pope Francis also gave Cardinal Filoni an undisclosed sum of money to help with the immediate needs of those who are suffering.
The U.S. Bishops’ Committee of International Justice and Peace, led by Des Moines, Iowa, Bishop Richard E. Pates, called for a national day of prayer Aug. 17 for peace in Iraq in parishes around the country. In a letter to U.S. bishops on Aug. 6, he outlined the grim scene in Iraq, asking that they pray a prayer for peace written by the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Iraq, His Beatitude Louis Rafael Sako. He also urged Catholics to contact their representatives and ask that humanitarian aid be provided to the suffering in Iraq.
Catholic Relief Services is offering humanitarian relief for more than 5,000 families and currently is working with Caritas Iraq to establish a new joint office in Erbil, which will be the fourth in northern Iraq. During the next six months, the organizations hope to offer assistance to 30,000 families, providing food, water and living supplies. They also will help with education and long-term resettlement efforts.
On the ground
Based in Qaraqosh, Iraq, a group of Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena was forced to flee Aug. 7 as the Islamic militants drew closer to the city. In a post written on the order’s website, the sisters said that 30 of their order left in three cars, accompanied by two families and three Franciscan sisters. Many other people were leaving town on foot.
“We arrived at the convent [in Erbil] exhausted emotionally, physically and mentally,” the sisters wrote. “What we saw was unbearable; people were suffering for no reason but because of their sect, religion and trace. We felt like we were in a nightmare wishing that someone would wake us up or that when the sun comes out it will be all over. But it was not the case, we were actually living a hard reality.”
As far as the Dominican sisters are concerned, the goal is to “stop the blood, stop the oppression, and stop the violence.”
“The world needs to stand as one to protect minority against the evil and injustice,” they wrote. “People want to live normal life in peace and dignity. Please help us to stop the evil.”
Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the apostolic nuncio to Iraq, told Vatican Radio that the targeted American airstrikes against the Islamic State ordered by President Barack Obama on Aug. 7 were “something that had to be done, otherwise the [Islamic State] could not be stopped.”
“But,” he continued, “we should wonder why we have arrived at this point: was it not a lack of intelligence? Were we not able to understand what was going on? And then: who gave to these [ISIS fighters] such sophisticated weapons?”
Archbishop Lingua said he prayed that the Christians who had left their villages do not lose their faith.
“They are giving us a very great testimony of their faith,” he said. “They did not accept to convert to Islam. This would have saved their life immediately. ... I pray that this faith remain notwithstanding these difficult circumstances, that they can believe that God is with them in any case.”
In its statement, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue called on all religious leaders — especially Muslims — involved in interfaith dialogue and all men and women of good will to speak out against terror in the name of religion.
“All must be unanimous in condemning unequivocally these crimes and in denouncing the use of religion to justify them,” it said. “If not, what credibility will religions, their followers and their leaders have? What credibility can the interreligious dialogue that we have patiently pursued over recent years have?”
The council also called on religious leaders to “exercise their influence with the authorities to end these crimes,” punish those responsible and stabilize the country, it said. “While recalling the need for an ethical management of human societies, it said: “these same religious leaders must not fail to stress that the support, funding and arming of terrorism is morally reprehensible.”
Gretchen R. Crowe is editor of OSV Newsweekly.