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‘The dear Iraq nation’ needs our prayers, says Pope Francis

20 June 2014


Seeking safety: Fr Gabriel Tooma checks the identities of internally displaced Iraqis, to give them permission to stay in Alqosh, a village north of Mosul, in northern Iraq, on Sunday

Seeking safety: Fr Gabriel Tooma checks the identities of internally displaced Iraqis, to give them permission to stay in Alqosh, a village north of...

CHURCH leaders have called for prayers to end the violence in Iraq, and protect the minority Christian community, in the wake of the swift seizure of cities and territory by Islamist militants over recent days.

At the same time, there has been international condemnation of the massacres of Iraqi troops and civilians when the al-Qaeda offshoot group, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant) (ISIS), has boasted about in video recordings.

Pope Francis, in his weekly address last Sunday, invited worshippers to unite themselves with his prayer "for the dear Iraqi nation, especially for the victims, andfor those who most suffer the consequences of the growing violence, in particular the many persons, among whom are somany Christians, who have had to leave their homes". He said that he was "following with lively concern the events of these last days inIraq".

Pope Francis said that he hoped that Iraqis would find security and peace, and a future of reconciliation and justice, where all inhabitants, "whatever their religious affiliation, will be able together to build up their country, making a model of coexistence".

Earlier, the Bishop in Cyprus & the Gulf, the Rt Revd Michael Lewis, issued a statement saying that "Iraqi Christians have requested urgent prayer as the situation in Mosul and surrounding areas deteriorates." Thousands of Christians have fled from their homes in Mosul, in Nineveh province, the first city to be captured by ISIS in the latest surge of its forces through Iraq.

Nineveh was once regarded as a safe area for Christians who had fled from other parts of Iraq. Fears were growing that the ISIS takeover of Mosul would "further accelerate the decline of the Christian presence in Iraq" (News, 13 June).

Christians around the world were being urged to pray that the people of Mosul would "know the close presence of Jesus, the guidance of the Spirit, and the protection of the Father". Christians were also asked to pray that the Iraqi authorities would "act decisively to improve security for all citizens of Iraq".

Reports from Mosul say that several churches, and other Christian properties, have been destroyed. In at least one Christian-dominated town near by, Bartella, many families remain - but are in fear of an ISIS attack. Armed civilians are providing protection to the inhabitants, because the Iraqi army fled from the whole Mosul region when the Islamists launched their offensive earlier this month.

The Rome-based lay Roman Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio spoke of "an explosion of extremist violence" in Mosul, and in northern Iraq as a whole, which was "jeopardising the success of a project of religious integration and social development, based on living together and co-operation between Christians and Muslims, which used to be a model throughout the country".

The founder of the community, Professor Andrea Riccardi, called on the Iraqi authorities and governments around the world to "do everything possible to break the cycle of violence" that threatens to fracture the country.

Professor Riccardi also called on international agencies to "intervene promptly" to help the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who were seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish-government region of northern Iraq, their progress hampered at times by ISIS.

An appeal to those sheltering in the north has been launched by Christian Aid, on behalf of its partner organisations there. Christian Aid has reported that some 200,000 displaced people are in Dohuk, and another 100,000 in Irbil.

The Chaplain of St George's, Baghdad, Canon Andrew White, has launched an appeal on behalf of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME), for funds to help meet the immediate needs of those in the crisis. Donations can be made through the website www.frrme.org, or by cheque, sent to FRRME at PO Box 229, Petersfield, Hampshire GU32 9DL.

Many of the Christians sheltering in the Kurdish region of Iraq say that they can no longer endure the anxiety and uncertainty that surround life in their home towns and villages. They will not return. "People are afraid of what's coming next," one woman told the news agency Associated Press. "I fear there will be a day when people will say: 'There were once Christians in Iraq.'"


Developments on the ground in Iraq offer little comfort to Iraqisof all faiths; for there seems to beno hope of the violence coming to an end soon. At present, it is by no means certain that the Iraqi army and Shia militias can halt the ISIS advance on the capital, Baghdad, much less recapture the many towns and cities now in Sunni Islamist hands. ISIS is well-armed and organised, and has a huge storeof weapons and piles of cash atits disposal. It is also highly motivated, and ruthless in its methods.

Governments around the world, meanwhile, are still assessing what part, if any, they should play in providing support for the central authorities in Baghdad. The UK and the United States have ruled out the despatch of troops to Iraq, but could still supply intelligence, or even launch long-range rocket or drone attacks against the Islamists.

Iran, too, has said that it will assist Iraq if the need arises. The President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, suggested last weekend that his country might take joint action with the US, saying: "We have not seen the US do anything for now. Any time the Americans start to take action against terrorist groups, we can consider that."

But the RC Archbishop of Baghdad, the Most Revd Jean Sleiman OCD, speaking from the Iraqi capital to the charity Aid to the Church in Need, rejected the notion of outside intervention in Iraq, saying that it was the duty of Iraqi politicians to find a solution the crisis. "ISIS needs to be stopped," he said, "and it needs the Iraq leaders to work together to stop it. That is more important than getting the international community involved. In responding to this crisis, the international community should think of the common good, not their own interests. They should think of peace."

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said on Monday that "based on corroborated reports from a number of sources, it appears that hundreds of non-combatant men were summarily executed over the past five days, including surrendered or captured soldiers, military conscripts, police, and others associated with the government."

Although these numbers could not be verified, Mr Pillay said, "this apparently systematic series of cold-blooded executions, mostly conducted in various locations in the Tikrit area, almost certainly amounts to war crimes."


Leader comment

Question of the week: Should it be left to the Iraqi government to deal with the ISIS threat?

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