UNITED NATIONS -- In the midst of the U.S. bishops' "Solidarity in Suffering" campaign, designed as a Week of Awareness and Education for Persecuted Christians, leaders from Iraq on Thursday urged the United Nations and the international community to recognize Christians as key to stabilizing the Middle East.
The Holy See's Mission to the United Nations, the Knights of Columbus, and the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee on Thursday co-sponsored a UN panel called "Preserving Pluralism and Diversity in the Nineveh Region," a discussion focused on improving the conditions for minority communities who have been previously driven out of the region and establishing a framework to allow them to return, settle, and prosper. (The Knights of Columbus are a principal sponsor of Crux.)
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In 2014, the Islamic State pillaged the Nineveh Plains, a region in northeast Iraq that has historically been inhabited predominantly by Christian communities. While ISIS has now been driven out and defeated, the situation remains fragile with many ethnic and religious minorities unsure whether they should risk returning and current residents considering if the worst is still to come.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, apostolic nuncio to the United Nations, chaired the meeting and said the Holy See was committed to "ensuring the conditions for them [Iraqi minorities] to return to their places of origin and live in dignity and safety with the basic social, political, and economic frameworks necessary to ensure to community cohesion."
"Do Not Forget the Persecuted People"
Father Salar Kajo, Vicar General of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Alquoch and pastor of parishes in Teleskof, Batnaya, and Baqofa, opened the discussion with a personal account of his pastoral ministry.
Kajo described his region as "100 percent Christian towns" and inhabited by individuals where the Church was the "center of their life."
"Ever since 2014, people have always looked first to the Church for their survival and their support," said Kajo.
Kajo described the recent years as a challenge for the remnant of Christians who have been fighting to keep alive one of the world's oldest Christian communities. "You must understand these are peaceful people without any military or political power," said Kajo. "They want only to live in peace on their own land."
In a mere 24-hour period in August 2014, entire towns were left abandoned by Christians being chased out by ISIS. For two years, these Christians lived as displaced people, surviving primarily with outside Christian charitable support.
After 2016, when many of the towns were liberated from ISIS, Christians returned to the region to find destroyed churches and their infrastructure in ruin. They begin the process of rebuilding, with over 1,000 families returning to the town of Teleskof.
This past September, however, they were told they must once more evacuate due to more fighting that would begin 24 hours later, yet Kajo and his fellow Church leaders refused to leave.
"We would not give up our town to destruction once again," he said.
Following U.S. government intervention, a ceasefire was established and the town was not destroyed - yet Kajo offered this as just one example of the precarious state of both the country and its citizens - and a Church that is working to provide both spiritual and practical support.
Kajo urged the international community to recognize the desperate plight of the people of the Nineveh plains. "They sleep with suitcases already packed," he said.
"If stability cannot come in these next few months, the Christians will leave the land of Nineveh forever," he warned. "I ask this body, please do not forget the persecuted minorities of the Nineveh plains."
Winning the Battle of Ideas
Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, who was installed as the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil in 2010, told the U.N. audience that Christians are a "key partner for the future of pluralism in Iraq" and "part of the solution, not part of the problem in terms of bringing peace and human rights to Iraq."
In order to more effectively work both in the region and with the international community, the three major Christian churches of Iraq - the Chaldean Catholics, Syrian Catholics, and Syrian Orthodox - have formed the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee to work together in unity to preserve their respective communities.
Warda said that in the past, there have been missteps by the individual groups not following the proper channels or indirectly competing against one another.
He said he believes the new body will more effectively serve the collective whole of Christians in Iraq, which now must confront two major obstacles: reconstruction, and winning the battle of ideas as they make the case that pluralism is good for both Christians and the rest of the country.
Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, called attention to the fact that the United States, the European Union, and many other leaders have spoken out against ISIS's actions against minority communities in the region as genocide. "Pluralism and co-existence have no place in communities under Daesh control," said Anderson, using an Arabic term for ISIS commonly used by its opponents.
Anderson offered a strong rejection of Daesh's intent to destroy pluralism and extolled the "spiritual and moral vision" offered by the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights, established by the United Nations in 1948 that has "given hope to billions in expressing the fundamental dignity of human persons...and that evil and darkness must not have the last word."
While ISIS has declined as a political force within the region, Anderson cautioned that their ideas still held power. "Will Daesh win ideologically, even as it loses militarily?" he asked.
Anderson urged the international community not to merely focus on the practical needs but to win the "battle of ideas," and to recognize, that the future of the Nineveh region depends on a strong global backing of pluralism where minorities can "exist and flourish."
A Plea to Learn Christian History
While Warda and his fellow Iraqi Christians are grateful for the support of the international community, in an interview with Crux, he said one of the challenges that remains is that many Americans fail to recognize the significant role the region and its people have played in the history of the faith.
"Remember that the Christians in the Middle East and the area in Syria, for example, are the ones who baptized Saint Paul," said Warda.
"We are a very old and historical community. The Christians in Iraq are the ones who spread Christianity and spread the Gospel in Persia up to India and China...I would really love to see every American to know about such rich history," Warda said.
"It's not so much just about praying for the persecuted Christians, but also to know who are they are," Warda said. "Some people would probably say, 'if we care for them, let us bring them here to America, where they could live in a safe environment.'
"But what about feeling a sense of mission?" he asked. "If we leave all of these lands...then probably we will lose one important and vital community, which has really played an important part in the region there."
Echoing that same sentiment, Anderson encouraged the United Nations' audience to close the information gap both in terms of general knowledge about the region and its history, but also its people of the past and present.
"We as Americans did not know the Iraqi people well," he said. "If we knew them better, I think we might have avoided some of the tragedies of the last decade."