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West warned not to be faint-hearted in dealing with IS

22 August 2014


A Kurdish fighter keeps guard while overlooking positions of Islamic State militants near Mosul.

A Kurdish fighter keeps guard while overlooking positions of Islamic State militants near Mosul.

THE crisis in Iraq, which has particularly affected Christians and other minority communities, has taken on new a dimension owing to increasing international support for Kurdish troops fighting the Islamic State (IS) forces. At the same time, the UK Government has been criticised by the Churches for failing to respond adequately to developments in Iraq and Syria.

The realisation that action from outside Iraq is needed to protect the country's Christians, Yazidis, and others has resulted in the EU's agreeing that individual members should be allowed to respond to calls for military help from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which is engaged in battles with IS forces.

The drift towards greater international support of one kind or another for the US campaign of attacking IS targets from the air was given a boost by comments from Pope Francis. On a flight back from South Korea on Monday, he was asked whether he approved of US strikes against IS insurgents. The Pope replied: "Where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor."

He was emphasising, he said, the verb "to stop". "I am not saying 'bomb' or 'make war', but stop him [the unjust aggressor]. The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated. . . One single nation cannot judge how an unjust aggressor is to be stopped." The United Nations was "the proper forum" for this.

An emotional call urging Western states not to be faint-hearted in taking action against IS also came from the exiled Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, the Most Revd Amel Nona. In an interview with an Italian newspaper from Irbil in KRG-controlled Iraq, he spoke of how he had lost his whole diocese: "Please, try to understand us. Your liberal and democratic principles are worth nothing here. You must consider our reality in the Middle East, because you are welcoming in your countries an ever-growing number of Muslims. Also you are in danger." Courageous decisions, were needed, "even at the cost of contradicting your principles".

His comments were echoed by Fr Meyassr Behnam of St George's Chaldean Church in Baghdad: "No one wants another country's soldiers to enter their own country, but we live in very bad times. We want international forces to protect the villages in Ninevah, because the government doesn't care about us."

Side by side with increasing international involvement in the battle against IS is the continuing attempt to support the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have been driven from their homes over recent weeks. One of the British charities involved in this effort, the AMAR International Charitable Foundation, has issued an appeal for aid (www.amarlondon.org).

"The most terrible atrocities are now being carried out in Iraq," said Baroness Nicholson, who chairs AMAR. "It is a desperate situation for hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. . . However, while much of the Western world continues to focus on the poor people of Gaza, little is being done for so many more people in Iraq."

On Wednesday, a group of faith leaders, among them the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, two imams, two senior rabbis and the secretary-general of the Muslim Council, described the situation in northern Iraq as "a tragedy of historic proportions".

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, they wrote: "Thousands of innocent people are at immediate risk of death for no other reason than their religious beliefs." They urged the Government to frame a UN Security Council resolution calling for an investigation by the International Criminal Court. "The international community must send a clear signal to those who are committing such atrocities that they will be held accountable for their actions." Calls for Britain to give refuge to some of the homeless Iraqi Christians continue to be made. The Chaplain of St George's, Baghdad, Canon Andrew White, told the BBC on Monday that "it would not only be wise to offer asylum to them, but it would also give them hope."

And the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nicholas Baines, has released a copy of a letter he had sent to the Prime Minister, with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, posing a series of "pressing questions". "The UK is responding to events in a reactive way, and it is difficult to discern the strategic intentions behind this approach. Please can you tell me what is the overall strategy that holds together the UK Government's response to both the humanitarian situation and what IS is actually doing in Syria and Iraq?"

He asked whether the Government had a coherent response to "these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others. Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?"

On Tuesday, IS released a video, A Message to America, apparently showing the beheading of the US journalist James Foley, missing in Syria since 2012. The militant filmed is reported to have a British accent. David Cameron said that the murder, if it had truly taken place, was "shocking and depraved."

Paul Vallely




A GERMAN monk, Fr Jens Petzold, who was exiled to Iraq after his religious community in Syria was raided by militants now cares for Christians who have fled from the conflict with the Islamic State (IS), writes Joe Ware.

Forced out of its Syrian monastery, Mar Mousa (St Moses), the community has also lost its spiritual leader, Fr Paolo Dall'Oglio, at the hands of rebel militants (News, 2 August 2013). His whereabouts are unknown.

Arriving in northern Iraq, Fr Petzold and the community of both monks and nuns were allowed to use the Church of the Virgin Mary in Sulaymaniyah by the Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, the Most Revd Yousif Mirkis.

This is now also home to 164 displaced Christians, some of the thousands of Christians forced to flee their homes from the Nenewa Plain, near Mosul. Some 1390 have sought refuge in Sulaymaniyah City.

The tiny church, which in normal times accommodates up to 15 people, became so crowded with 60 people that the community also rented three old houses near by. Describing the people taking shelter there, Fr Petzold said: "They have been robbed of everything, their belongings, their money, their homes, businesses, their church history."

Family members watch videos posted online by IS of the takeover of their villages, of IS militants hanging black flags on their schools, government buildings, and churches. Fr Petzold said, however, that he is thankful that their loss is primarily only material. Compared with other religious minorities, deaths of Christians at the hands of IS militants have been relatively few.

Fr Petzold holds daily masses for the families in the monastery, surrounded by children on pillows on the floor, the adults crowded into the pews behind them. The prayers and songs are in Arabic as well as Sureth, the ancient language related to Jesus's own Aramaic.

He asks for prayers for the safety and protection of those left behind with IS. He is also concerned that the conflicts among sectarian groups are destroying what little trust remains among communities; and for the young people being swayed to join IS. "It's as if they have been infected with a kind of hysteria. . . we must pray for their young souls." Despite these divisions in society, he says, he is also seeing the miraculous generosity of ordinary citizens from all backgrounds helping each other. Christian Aid's partner organisation REACH was one of the first aid organisations to deliver food and beds to the churches. These resources have made a big difference, as the monastery's budget covers only the three permanent members of the community.

Ann Ward from Christian Aid, who is in Sulaymaniyah City, said: "Conditions for the families are quite severe, crowding is overwhelming, and temperatures are very high. . . People are sleeping in shifts because there is not enough space for men and women to sleep together safely; so women sleep at night and the men sleep during the day.

To support the Christian Aid Iraq Crisis Appeal, which is helping people of all faiths and none in Iraq, go to www.christian-aid.org/iraq

Joe Ware works in the Press Office at Christian Aid.

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