“When everybody is building walls, the church can build bridges”
During the visit to Iraq on 20-24 January, a delegation of church leaders shared the findings and recommendations of a recent study exploring the specific needs of displaced people in Iraq and Syria. The delegation also learned a lot about the current situation and challenges from representatives of local faith communities in Iraq, heads of the country’s Christian churches and Christian young people.
Father Emanuel Youkhana, the archimandrite of the Church of the East who coordinates a massive humanitarian program in Duhok, said the delegation’s visit served “to let those who suffer here know that they are not alone, that there are people who care for them, pray for them, and work on their behalf.”
Youkhana said the delegation’s conversations with political leaders helped to remind authorities of the unique gifts and specific needs of the most vulnerable. “Although we have suffered, we as a church still want to play a positive role in building the future. Our work is needed now more than ever, because in a time when everybody is building walls, the church can build bridges,” he said.
A United Nations official in Baghdad told the delegation that the Iraqi government, despite pressure from some foreign militaries, has recognized the demands of international humanitarian law and exercised caution in its campaign against the Islamic State.
Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said the Iraqi government has also provided the “overwhelming majority” of the humanitarian response to those affected by the conflict, and that ordinary Iraqis have also pitched in. “There are 3,700 mosques across the country that have opened their doors to internally displaced families. The entire country is supporting the displaced,” she told the delegation. “The international community is doing a relatively small part, and having trouble finding the funding for that. It’s shameful. Those who were complicit in the mess, who were directly responsible as parties to the conflict, shouldn’t be able to get away with this. If you help to destroy a country, you’ve got to pay for rebuilding it.”
“There is an almost unbearable weight of suffering here,” said Rev. Dr Christopher Cocksworth, bishop of Coventry for the Anglican Church, England. He noted that several of the delegation members will return home to speak with their respective governments about the need to step up reconstruction assistance.
“With the success of the campaign against ISIS, the country is approaching a clear crossroads. It’s an opportunity for new action by both political leaders in Iraq as well as for those in nations, like my own, which have had a long-term involvement in Iraq, including military involvement,” said Cocksworth, a member of the British House of Lords. “We have been involved here militarily, and we’ve left behind chaos. Can we now rise to the challenge of pursuing peace and building a coalition of reconstruction and renewal which is pursued with the same sort of aggression and determination and levels of finance that are comparable to our military involvement?”
One of the delegation’s most emotional encounters was a meeting with youth in Ankawa, a neighborhood outside Erbil where tens of thousands of displaced Christians have taken refuge. One young man shared his frustration with national church leaders, some of whom he said had sent their families to Europe while they urged the faithful not to abandon the country.
Lubna Yusef told the delegation of her family’s struggle to survive after fleeing Qaraqosh in 2014. “What did we do to deserve this? I hate traveling and immigration, but today, for the sake of my children, if I had a chance to emigrate I would,” she said.
“If there was protection for us back home, this wouldn’t happen. But how long can we go on living where we are now? I am young but I feel like my life is over. Yet what about my children? Who can guarantee that something even worse than ISIS will not come along and destroy the life of my children?” she asked.
“Our priests are telling us to stay because this is our country, this is our civilization. But why do we repeatedly have to start from zero? If I go to Europe or the United States, would they accept the diploma that I have from here? Of course not. So don’t bring any material things for us. We don’t want that stuff. I will work hard and I will buy what I need. But I can’t buy my life. I want security. I want to sleep at night without worrying about the morning,” Yusef said. “We don’t want you to help us rebuild our houses. Even more important, we want our dignity back.”
A global delegation of church leaders visited Iraq from 20 to 24 January, meeting the senior political leadership of both the federal government of Iraq in Baghdad and of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, members of parliament representing minority communities, the heads of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, and representatives of other faith communities in Iraq as well as the heads of the country’s Christian churches and Christian young people.
The delegation welcomed the commitment expressed by political leaders both in Baghdad and Erbil to preserving the cultural, ethnic and religious diversity of the country, and called for an emergency response from international donors to support efforts to secure, stabilize and rebuild affected communities and societies.
To secure the future of social and religious diversity in the region and to avoid further massive emigration of Christians and others, the WCC delegation shared the findings of a study “The Protection Needs of Minorities from Syria and Iraq”, conducted together with Norwegian Church Aid and released in December 2016.