Father Andrzej Halemba heads the Middle East Section of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). He recently visited the displaced Christians of Iraq: “It is the most tragic thing that I have ever experienced.”
by Oliver Maksan
ACN: Father Halemba, you were recently in Iraq. Do the Christians there still have hope?
It is a very difficult situation. Without question, we are talking about genocide here. Genocide is not only when the people are killed, but also when the soul of a people is destroyed. And that is what is happening in Iraq now. It is the most tragic thing that I have ever experienced. I have seen people who have been deeply wounded in their soul. In the various crises in this world I have often seen people who have lost everything. But in Iraq there are Christians who have had to leave everything and take flight three or four times. They can see no light at the end of the tunnel. They are all very traumatised. Normally in such situations it is the women who pull everything together. But in Kurdistan I have seen women who have looked into nothingness and have closed up on themselves. The tears in their eyes are dry. It is something that I have never seen anywhere else. The men, by contrast, tend to aggressiveness. This has to do with the fact that they are no longer able to fulfil their previous role as the breadwinner and protector of their family. Now they have to beg for everything and they have no perspective.
ACN: Do you have the impression that the Christians wish to leave Iraq?
When one has lost all hope, one wishes to leave one’s homeland. The majority do not wish to return to their homes. This is a bad sign for the future of Christianity in Iraq. The Christians feel that in Iraq they have been betrayed and abandoned, and they want to get out. The Kurdish fighters who were supposed to defend the Christian areas against ISIS assured the Christians that they were safe. And suddenly ISIS overran the Christian towns and villages. Often they could not even take a change of clothes with them. That is a bitter feeling, to have nobody on whom one can depend. It reminds many Christians of the massacres in the Ottoman era, 100 years ago, when hundreds of thousands of Christians were slaughtered.
ACN: According to the Church, more than 120,000 Christians are now in flight. Do you have the impression that they are receiving the aid that they need?
The Christians are not being helped, either by the central Iraqi government or by the Kurdish regional government. So they feel like second-class citizens. This is not the least reason why they are so angry. The Christians are mainly left to their own devices. Naturally there is aid from outside. But the Christians can only come by it through their own efforts. We have true heroes of neighbourly love in Iraq. Bishops, priests and members of religious orders, but also lay people, have done exemplary work on behalf of their fellow people, and are still doing so.
ACN: What is the greatest humanitarian challenge at the present time?
The coming winter, of course. It can get very cold in Kurdistan, and it can snow. The rains are already starting to come. With the aid of ACN, we are trying to re-house the people from tents into accommodation containers. But in my opinion the greatest challenge is the mentality of the people. Are they already determined to turn their backs on Iraq and the Middle East for ever? This is where we must take action and give the people hope.
Above all, the people must once again believe in the future of their ancient and beautiful country. So the international community must work towards ensuring that the government in Baghdad is strengthened and incorporates all the religious and ethnic groups in the country. Only in this way can ISIS be ultimately defeated.
ACN: How does ACN intend to continue to support the Christians of Iraq?
We have made some four million euros available to help the people and give new hope. The accommodation situation, in particular, must be improved. It is often the case that more than twenty people are having to live together in one room in the emergency accommodation. This is unacceptable in the long run. So we are paying the rents on decent apartments in Erbil, and also in Dohuk and Zakho, so that the people can again have a few square metres for themselves. In addition, we must improve the situation of the children. The children should be in schools, not on the streets. We are helping to furnish eight schools for 900 children each. This also gives encouragement to the people, because it means that at least the children can have a kind of normal life. When they are going to school, they are no longer thinking about ISIS all the time. The children are our particular concern. Christmas is coming, and we want to give them a Christmas present. We will provide gifts for 15,000 children. Each package will cost about 25 dollars. Many volunteers will assist in their distribution. And every package will contain a card, calling upon the children to pray for the benefactors throughout the world. This will give them the feeling that they have not been abandoned.
There are still 12,000 registered Christian families (approximately 95,000 people) who fled the war in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains and are presently living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Erbil and neighbouring towns.
“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is clearly evident in those that faced violence first hand. Depression and anxiety are at extremely high levels among adults”, warns Mons. Warda, Archbishop of Erbil. “We expect to see a rise over the coming months in terms of the need for financial and humanitarian assistance.”
For the most part these refugee families are unemployed, or at least without any regular or significant income.
Many families are still dependent upon the Church for food, lodging, clothes, medicine and other essentials.
Families already returned
Christians already returned
Houses Totally Destroyed
Houses Partially Damaged
Number of houses actually being renovated
Number of houses registered to be renovated