Catholic aid organizations scramble to meet Iraqi needs
In a tumultuous Iraq facing an increasingly uncertain future, Catholic charity organizations are rallying to meet the immediate needs of those afflicted by ongoing violence.
“Movement is pretty limited, so all numbers and information we get is anecdotal,” Kris Ozar, correspondent for Caritas Egypt, an international relief agency of the Church, told CNA June 30.
“The one thing that’s certain and that I’m hearing around here is that nobody knows, nobody knows,” he said. “Nobody knows where people are going, nobody knows how long people are staying, people are renting houses but for a temporary time because they’re expensive. It’s a lot of uncertainty, absolutely a lot of uncertainty.”
Although Ozar is officially assigned to Egypt, he has been sent by the organization to Iraq in order to assist in giving aid to refugees. Having fled Mosul only 15 minutes before it was mortared by ISIS June 10, Ozar returned to Egypt briefly, and arrived back to Iraq June 30.
Aiming to establish a Sunni state within Syria and Iraq, which is a majority Shia region, ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Group (ISIS), launched its offensive in Iraq in early June, overtaking its second-largest city of Mosul June 10.
The group now controls much of north and north-central Iraq, including the city of Tal Afar.
Over the weekend, displaced persons who scattered after the June 10 attack at Mosul began to return to the region, with many taking refuge in the neighboring city of Erbil, where they are under the protection of the Kurdish army.
“When I was talking to displaced families it was a buffet of needs,” Ozar noted. “But the greatest needs are food, mattresses, spending money, they need to have cell phone credit to call their families and to be in communication. They have medical needs.”
Since many families are now forced to sleep in local schools, “they need mattresses, they need sheets and blankets, they need soap, they need clothes. You name it they need it.”
“People literally picked up and ran with what they had with them,” he said, recalling how he had come across a newborn baby that was taken from the hospital in Mosul only a few hours after being born in order to flee from ISIS forces.
Despite the practical needs refugees are facing, which also include electricity and fuel, “the greatest thing they’re looking for is security and peace of mind,” Ozar explained.
“'What are your greatest needs?' 'We want peace. Can you give my family and I peace?'” was the looming question he was faced with when assisting the refugees, and is a task he has found “a bit daunting.”
In an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need published July 2, the Chaldean patriarch of Iraq, Raphael I Sako, explained that the country will “need help in the future to create a Christian infrastructure when the situation has stabilized.”
“We will need new houses, and we will have to rebuild the factories and agriculture," he said. "The remaining Christian towns will have to be modernized. We will rely on outside help for all this.”
Explaining how this is Iraq’s “darkest hour” not only for Christians but for everyone in the country, the patriarch expressed his concern that Christianity will cease to exist due to the number of people fleeing, stating that this would be “a hiatus for our history.”
In wake of the increasing number of refugees and displaced persons due to the recent ISIS attacks, Aid to the Church in Need has offered a donation of 100,000 euro, which equates to roughly $136,600.
Having donated $2.4 million euro to Iraq since 1983, mostly to aid refugees, Marta Petrosillo, Italian press officer for Aid to the Church in Need, told CNA June 26 that their newest donation will be delivered directly to the hands of Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona, Chaldean archbishop of Mosul.
“Since ISIS attacked Mosul in the evening between June 9–10, about 500,000 people fled Mosul and among them almost the entire Christian community,” she said.
“The Church found a place (for them) to stay in schools, in houses that have been abandoned by their owners,” she said, “but now there’s an emergency because there’s a lack of water, a lack of electricity and of course a lack of food.”
Referring to the number of those who have fled their homes in Iraq since 2003, Petrosillo observed how “40 percent of all Iraqi refugees in the world are Christians” and that now “the percentage of Christians in Iraq is just 2 percent.”
“So this number can tell you how much the life of Christians in Iraq is terrible. They really have to face terrible things,” she said, recalling how in 2006 many Christians in Baghdad would find a note on their doorstep “from Muslim people telling them ‘convert or die.’”
Baghdad has lost “70 percent of its Christians in the past 11 years according to Chaldean auxiliary of Baghdad, and the same thing in other cities,” Petrosillo explained.
“It’s really hard to keep telling people that they have to continue having hope for the future because it’s been 11 years that they are suffering, so nobody can tell them that the future will be better,” she said. “And now this last thing, this ISIS attack, it’s another wound to the Christian community, because they know what ISIS did in Syria.”
The only hope for Christianity in Iraq is that “the community stays in Iraq,” she said, “but how can you ask your people to stay if the situation is so dramatic and the future is so unclear?”