Helping the survivors of ISIS this Christmas

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work for the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations in New York is the ability to organize conferences at U.N. headquarters to shine a spotlight on realities that we believe deserve greater attention and give a voice to those whose cries for help are not adequately heard. 

In the month of November, we were able to sponsor two conferences on what Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities have endured at the merciless hands of ISIS. Since ISIS has been militarily defeated in Iraq and is on the verge of defeat in Syria, there’s a serious risk that the attention of the world will basically move to other crises. But we cannot forget what happened or those who suffered. While we tragically didn’t prevent the barbarities Christians, Yezidis and others endured, we must act to bring them justice, help them rebuild, and prevent ISIS from achieving one of its main objectives, which is the liquidation of ethnic diversity and religious pluralism from the region. 

On November 2, we heard first-hand from survivors of ISIS atrocities and focused on what was needed to hold accountable the barbarians who carried out their sadistic rampage of murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, suicide bombings, enslavement, forced marriage, trafficking in persons, rape, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence — in short, what the United States, Iraq, Hungary, Lithuania, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the European Union and others have termed a genocide. 

We heard from a courageous Yezidi girl, Ekhlas Khudur Bajoo, who on Aug. 3, 2014 was kidnapped by ISIS as they invaded her city of Sinjar. Her father was brutally executed, as part of a mass murder of males in the village. She, at 14, was sold into sexual slavery with hundreds of other girls and raped and humiliated each day for six months. Her sufferings were so severe she tried, but failed, to take her life. Three times she attempted to escape but was caught by ISIS troops, beaten and tortured. Finally on her fourth attempt, she succeeded. She came to the U.N. — missing the funeral of her brother — because of the urgency she felt to speak on behalf of all those women who have suffered or are still suffering. She begged everyone present to “wipe our tears, heal our wounds, bring back the smiles on our faces, and rescue the girls who remain in captivity.” She finished by appealing, “I ask you not to remain silent. Stand with me and with all the survivors. Bring back our smiles.” 

We also heard by video from a Syrian Christian, Gaby, who was kidnapped by ISIS and tortured for three weeks before his family arranged a costly ransom, and from Dr. Nezar Taib, a psychiatrist and regional health director in Dohuk, who catalogued for us the various physical and psychological traumas among the thousands fleeing from ISIS terror and captivity whom he and his team have treated. 

Everyone present, from ambassadors, to NGO delegates, to experts on the Middle East were repeatedly moved to tears. One of the U.N. technicians approached me afterward to tell me that he has worked for 30 years at the U.N. — helping to run several conferences a day, five days a week (an estimated 40,000 conferences) — and said that this event was the most compelling he had ever attended. 

On November 30, we held another conference to focus on the rebuilding necessary to help those who had been driven from the Nineveh Plain by ISIS to return. We heard from Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Archeparchy of Erbil, where most of the Christian refugees were welcomed, and Father Salar Kajo, pastor of three affected parishes in the north of Iraq, where Christians are now returning. We also heard from ambassadors from countries and leaders of three organizations — the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need USA, and the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee — that are heavily committed to the rebuilding effort. 

ISIS left many of the cities and towns of the region in rubble, destroying homes, churches, schools, public utilities and infrastructure. What’s needed is the equivalent of a “Marshall Plan” that was used to reconstruct bombed out Europe after World War II. It begins by clearing rubble, rebuilding or refurbishing houses, reestablishing water and electricity, and reconstructing medical, educational and community infrastructure; next, creating jobs through microfinancing so that a local economy can be established and people can transition from dependency to self-sufficiency; then providing physical and psychological care to those in need, educating the young and training them to help rebuild their societies. 

This is not just to return to them in justice what ISIS sought to pillage from them. It’s also to ensure the true defeat of ISIS. 

Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, echoed the fear of the great Lebanese statesmen, Charles Malik, one of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II. “You may win every battle, but if you lose the war of ideas, you will have lost the war. My deepest fear — and your greatest problem — is that you may not be winning the war of ideas.” 

Anderson commented, “While ISIS is now gone as a military force, so too are the victims they forcibly evicted. The philosophy behind their genocide — the idea of cleansing Iraq of religious minority groups like Yezidis and Christians — is on the cusp of success. Quite simply, if the religious minorities displaced by ISIS do not return to their ancestral homes in sizeable numbers, ISIS will have won the battle of ideas. In that case, not just Nineveh, and not just Iraq, but the entire world will be poorer for that outcome — and threatened by it.” 

The only way to make sure ISIS cannot claim any victory is to restore Christians, and with them pluralism and diversity, to where ISIS ravaged. The Nineveh Plains had been home to more than 40 percent of the Christian population of Iraq, but in most of the region, only 12 percent of the Christians have been able to return.

Archbishop Warda stated, “One positive outcome that has followed the genocide by ISIS has been the denouncing of their tactics by the entire world community — Christians, Muslims and others. Now it is time for action as well as words. Not only the West, but Islamic countries as well, who have been affected by terror of ISIS’ ideology, must commit resources to save pluralism in Iraq as a manifestation of their opposition to this ideology of hatred and genocide.” 

Father Kajo spoke on behalf of his parishioners, who “want only to live in peace in our historic lands where we have harmed no one.” They are deeply afraid of more violence, he said, and for that reason “sleep with suitcases already packed” and “only buy small amounts of food.” He said that even though “there are many tragedies in this world today, and our story is only a small one now, please do not forget the persecuted minorities of the Nineveh Plain.” 

Pope Francis hasn’t forgotten them and is trying to stir the world to remember them. On November 15, as he was given a special edition Lamborghini Huracan, he announced that it would be auctioned off so that the proceeds could be given to the “Return to the Roots” project being coordinated by the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (a unified effort of the three major Christian churches in the Nineveh Plain) with the help of Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, his secretary of state, called the work of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee “praiseworthy and greatly needed” and expressed the “deep appreciation and encouragement” of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church “for this noble and difficult effort.”

If you would like to help out in this noble, difficult rebuilding effort, I would urge you to go to www.christiansatrisk.org, the site set up by the Knights of Columbus to channel support directly to the Church’s efforts in the region. The average cost to repair or rebuild a home for a family in the region is $2,000, and so your contributions will go a long way. 

As we prepare for Christmas, meditate upon the generosity of the Magi who came from the East, and ponder with horror the slaughter of the Holy Innocents soon after Christ’s birth, we have the opportunity to do something to help those who are striving to keep the memory of the Prince of Peace alive in the region where the Church is not just a branch of Christianity but a root, where the disciples were not converted by St. Paul, but baptized him. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.


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