Bishop's Blunt Talk on Iraqi Inaction on Christian Suffering

In a blunt assessment of the response of the Iraqi government to the suffering of Christians from the northern Nineveh province, a leading Chaldean Catholic bishop said, "Our people have been abandoned."

Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil blasted both the Iraqi government and local and regional Muslim leaders not only for their lack of material support to Christians following the vast dislocation of the community in flight from ISIS militants over recent months, but also for an unwillingness to explicitly condemn the repression of Christians by fellow Muslims.

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"The reality is that Christians have received no support from the central government," Bishop Warda said in an interview with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need on Oct. 7. "They have done nothing for them, absolutely nothing." According to the archbishop, the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil had made it clear from the start of the crisis that it could offer no financial assistance because KRG authorities had stopped receiving subsidies from Baghdad. More than 120,000 Christians have fled sometimes ancient Christian communities terrorized by the extremists and escaped into northern Iraq's Kurdistan region. Regrettably the threat from ISIS fighters has followed them even into this regional sanctuary. 

Archbishop Warda said, “The crisis that has hit Christians from Mosul and Nineveh is not just a shock. It is for us genocide. All voices have acknowledged that this is a crime against humanity.”

U.N. report issued Oct. 2 would seem to support the bishop's grim assessment. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights the struggle in northern Iraq "continues to take a heavy toll on civilians" and finds that "gross human rights abuses and acts of violence of an increasingly sectarian nature, committed by armed groups, have exacerbated the effect on civilians and contributed to the deterioration in the human rights situation and the rule of law, in many parts of the country."

U.N. investigators say, "Members of Iraq’s diverse ethnic and religious communities, including Turkmen, Shabak, Christians, Yezidi, Sabaeans, Kaka’e, Faili Kurds, Arab Shi’a, and others have particularly been affected by the situation. [ISIS] and associated armed groups intentionally and systematically targeted these communities for gross human rights abuses, at times aimed at destroying, suppressing or cleansing them from areas under their control. [ISIS] and associated armed groups also murdered captured soldiers and other security forces or government personnel.... many of the violations and abuses perpetrated by [ISIS] and associated armed groups may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity."

The U.N. reports that at least 8,493 civilians were killed and 15,782 were wounded during the first eight months of 2014 but adds, "The actual numbers could be much higher.

"Additionally, the number of civilians who have died from the secondary effects of violence, such as lack of access to basic food, water or medicine, after fleeing their homes or who remained trapped in areas under ISIL control or in areas of conflict are unknown. Children, pregnant women, persons with disabilities, and elderly people have been particularly vulnerable."

Archbishop Warda said, “We have not had a clear denunciation of [IS] from Muslim leaders.” He said Muslim leaders seemed concerned only with how the attacks had undermined Islam’s international reputation.

Archbishop Warda said displaced Christians in his diocese and the nearby Dohuk region are becoming increasingly concerned about their future two months after being forced to abandon their homes and all their belongings in Mosul and the Niniveh Plains. "The central government is to blame," he said. "It has not fulfilled its commitment to the people. The government in Baghdad received a lot of help from the international community for the displaced people from Mosul and Nineveh—but there has been no sign of it here.” He charged that Baghdad was helping displaced Muslims, but not Christians.

The archbishop also complained that Iraqi Muslim leaders have thus far failed to unequivocally condemn the violence carried out in the name of Islam and the ejection of all Christians from their ancient Biblical homeland. Citing instances of long-time Muslims neighbors looting the homes of Christians who had fled their homes, Archbishop Warda said many of his faithful felt “betrayed” and were now more likely to flee the country.

He said one Catholic from Mosul had described watching video footage of a man he recognized as his friend and neighbor pulling down the cross of a church rendered empty by the evacuation of Christians. “We visit the [refugee] tents everyday and speak to the people we are helping and they say they would like to go back to their homes immediately. But how can you live again among the people who were your neighbors who have betrayed you?” Archbishop Warda said a Christian man displaced from Mosul had been phoned by a neighbor who brazenly told him he had entered his house and without permission had taken his cash, giving half to ISIS and keeping the rest for himself.

Archbishop Warda, alongside other local bishops, has coordinated a relief program of food and emergency housing for the displaced people. He said the task of aiding Christians had fallen almost exclusively to the church. “Church agencies have been here helping us since day one and they remain with the people long after the headlines have moved on to something different.”

As of August 2014, the UN estimate that 1.8 million Iraqis had been displaced due to the ongoing violence. Some 1,000,000 are displaced in areas under the control of ISIS and associated armed groups or in areas under overnment control, while 800,000 were displaced in the Kurdistan Region. "Ensuring the protection and basic humanitarian needs of all civilians remains of critical importance."

U.N. investigators have received reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross abuses of human rights that have been perpetrated by ISIS and associated armed groups, "with an apparent systematic and widespread character."

According to the report, "these include attacks directly targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, executions and other targeted killings of civilians, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence perpetrated against women and children, forced recruitment of children, destruction or desecration of places of religious or cultural significance, wanton destruction and looting of property, and denial of fundamental freedoms."

The report was also critical of Iraqi government forces, noting "some reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross violations or abuses of international human rights law," including air strikes and shelling as well as conduct of particular military operations or attacks that may have violated the principles of distinction and proportionality under international humanitarian law. Armed groups affiliated to or supporting the Government also carried out targeted killings, including of [captured ISIS fighters] and its associated armed groups, and abductions of civilians."

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