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Leaders in dilemma over humanitarian crisis in Iraq

15 August 2014


On the move: displaced Yazidi people fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, Iraq, walk towards the Syrian border on Monday

On the move: displaced Yazidi people fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, Iraq, walk towards the Syrian border on...

CHRISTIAN leaders around the world are agonising over how best to respond to the humanitarian catastrophe in northern Iraq, as many thousands of Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and people of other minority faiths flee for their lives from the advancing Islamic State (IS) forces. The Archbishop of Canterbury has added his voice to those urging the UK Government to allow Iraqi refugees to enter the country.

The crisis in northern Iraq has many layers, of which the refugee emergency is just one. Iraqi Christians who have not been able to seek shelter in the Kurdish region have been subjected to horrendous atrocities at the hands of the jihadists.

The Chaplain of St George's, Baghdad, Canon Andrew White, told the Anglican Communion News Service that, during an IS attack on the town of Qaraqosh, a five-year-old boy was cut in half. Canon White said that he had baptised the child "in my church in Baghdad. This little boy, they named him after me - he was called Andrew."


Speaking on the BBC Sunday programme, the Chaplain of the Syrian Catholic Community in the UK, Monsignor Nizar Semaan, broke down when he spoke of the exodus of all Christians from Qaraqosh, his home town: "It's my history, my family, my entire life, the life of 50,000 people. Where is the international community in the face of this humanitarian crisis? Just to mention Qaraqosh makes me cry."

In a statement last Friday, Archbishop Welby urged the rest of the world to "document human-rights abuses being committed in northern Iraq, so that future prosecutions can take place. It is important and necessary for the international community to challenge the culture of impunity which has allowed these atrocities to take place."

In an interview on Sunday, the Archbishop spoke of the "sense of near despair and helplessness" at what was happening in Iraq. He added that, while people were saying that more should be done to help Iraqi Christians, it was difficult to say "exactly what 'more' we are talking about".

On Wednesday, in an interview for ABC Australia, during his visit to the Province, he said that events in Iraq took the persecution of Christians - he highlighted atrocities in both Nigeria and Pakistan - to "a new extent, a new sense of savagery, and a new determination". He saw an "evil pattern" in "so many parts of the world. Very often linked to a strain of Islam that is a largely rejected by most Muslims. And seems tied up much more with personal power-seeking, with adventurism, with almost cult behaviour, than anything that is related to any historic pattern of Islamic behaviour."

Three diocesan bishops - the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nicholas Baines, the Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd David Walker, and the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge - have urged the Government to facilitate the entry of Iraqi refugees into Britain. Asked for his view on this, Archbishop Welby: said "I think that this is something we could do: we have the resources to do it."

Also on the Sunday programme, the RC Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, denounced the "blind, cruel, wanton" actions of the IS. Christians should pray for courage for the Iraqi people affected, he said, and for the sustenance of their faith. On their being allowed into the UK, Cardinal Nichols said that "those who wish to travel abroad should be welcomed. But we need a Christian presence in Iraq."

Both Archbishop Welby and Cardinal Nichols said that they lacked the qualifications to judge whether the use of outside force would be beneficial. But the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams said on Monday that Western military action against Iraq in the past had failed to create a society where Christians and other minority communities could feel secure.


"The assumption that a little bit of tidy, surgical military action would create Western-style democracy in the Middle East is a terrible illusion," he said. "As it is, we're faced with a choice of a number of very unpalatable alternatives. I think that the humanitarian, protective steps currently being taken are more or less unavoidable if we're not to see complete genocidal breakdown."

The Religious Liberty Commission - which comprises Release International, Open Doors (UK and Ireland), Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and the Evangelical Alliance (UK) - said that if Western governments allowed groups such as IS to persecute populations with impunity, it would "set a dangerous precedent in global affairs. The situation in Iraq is particularly important because Western governments were complicit in creating the vacuum into which the terrorists have now stepped."

The group said that it was "unacceptable for Western governments that embarked on the process of bringing freedom and human rights to Iraq to continue neglecting this situation. It is vital that all of Iraq's religious and ethnic minorities are guaranteed a future in their country."

Appeals for prayers and practical support for Christians, Yazidis, and others fleeing from the IS have been made around the world. Pope Francis, addressing pilgrims in Rome on Sunday, said that the news from Iraq had left the world "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 of every kind; destruction of historical, cultural, and religious patrimonies. All this gravely offends God and humanity."

The Pope said that he had appointed Cardinal Fernando Filoni as his personal envoy to Iraq, to show "spiritual support and the Church's solidarity with the people who are suffering". The Council of the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conferences of Europe joined appeals "to the international community to do something more to stop this tragedy".

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue issued a statement on Tuesday deploring the upsurge in violence in Iraq, calling on religious leaders, those involved in interfaith dialogue, and on all men and women of good will unequivocally to condemn terror in the name of religion.

The Council listed practices which, it said, "bring shame on humanity". These include: the massacre of people on the sole basis of their religious affiliation; the "despicable practice" of beheading, crucifying, and hanging bodies in public places; the choice given to Christians and Yazidis to convert to Islam, pay a tax, or go into exile; and the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of people.

The Council of Christians and Jews condemned "in the strongest terms the ongoing persecution of large numbers of Christians in Iraq", as well as the persecution of Yazidis. The Council "urges that everything possible will be done by the international community to end this tragic treatment of religious peoples".

Dr Terence Ascott, the CEO of a Christian television channel broadcasting to the Middle East, SAT-7 (Feature, 8 August), called on the silent majority of Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq to say clearly that they had had enough of the IS presence there. Unless they were "willing to raise their heads above the parapet and speak up, there will be no end to the bloodletting, and, sadly, there will ultimately be no place left in Iraq - or Syria - for its Christian and other historic minorities."

In the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, churches are struggling to find shelter and food for the fast-growing refugee presence. Christian Aid's head of the Middle East, Janet Symes, said: "The situation across parts of Iraq, and the plight of persecuted minorities, is horrific. The magnitude at which IS militants are operating is absolutely terrifying, and we deplore their actions in the deliberate targeting of civilians." She said that Christian Aid was calling for "an urgent humanitarian response".

Christian Aid, in a separate statement, said that it was "sometimes hard to know how to incorporate reflections and prayers into church services and small groups"; so it has suggested Bible readings, prayers, and reflections, which are available on its website (www.christianaid.org.uk).

Despite the acts of violence being perpetrated by IS fighters, church leaders have emphasised that the group represents only a minuscule fraction, and that the vast majority of Muslims have denounced the group's actions, and question the basis of its theology. The church-men said that Christians should remember the importance of showing compassion and forgiveness towards one's enemy.

Archbishop Welby said that this was "the great trial and challenge" for Christians. Adhering to this article of faith "may not solve problems, but, in the end, it changes the world. It may not be a quick fix, but it is the right thing in the end."

Leader comment

Question of the week: Should the UK send troops to protect Iraqis against Islamic State fighters? 

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