Millions of people are displaced from their homes all over the world. With so much of humanity suffering, I have had to ask myself ‘Is it decent to single out and write about one group?’, especially if they are people to whom I am bound by a shared faith. We Christians must care about everyone, after all, not just our Christian brothers and sisters. But one must not just be quiet, either. The Christians of the Middle East are suffering religious persecution on a terrible scale.
The new bishops in Australia last year came home from their bishops’ school in Rome with a searing memory. One of their fellow participants was a bishop from Iraq, chosen to replace a bishop who had been gunned down outside his cathedral. He had escaped through Syria and Lebanon to get to Rome, but he was also going back. He would land secretly in Lebanon again and go cross-country. His mission, as he described it, was to go back and die for his people. You can perhaps imagine the silence in which the whole Australian hierarchy listened to that story. In December, a party of seven bishops from Australia made their way to Iraq. Along with the three bishops of the Eastern Catholic dioceses of Australia there were the archbishops of Canberra- Goulburn and Hobart and two other bishops of other Eastern Christians in Australia. They were the first such delegation of bishops from the West to make the trip. They visited church leaders in Beirut and a vast tent-city camp of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but most notably they visited the Chaldean Catholic diocese of Erbil in the Kurdishheld part of Iraq.
Erbil is one of the centres for Christians fleeing ISIS. When ISIS took over the major city of Mosul, the local Christians were offered the choice of conversion to Islam, a crippling tax, or death. Some 120,000 of them fled, mostly to Kurdish territory, 50,000 of them to Erbil. Our Australian bishops had gone with about US$300,000 from church collections in Australia, but that was a drop in the bucket. The Bishop of Erbil has since reported that it was distributed to some 850 refugee families, at about US$270 each, for immediate needs like food, clothing and materials to make their tents or shacks slightly better. On the other hand, Archbishop Porteous of Hobart reports that wherever they went the most significant thing to the people was that they were from the outside world, evidence to the Eastern Christians that they were not simply forgotten. He also, of course, told some of the harrowing stories of, for example, children he met who had seen their parents killed in cold blood.
The great fear of the Eastern Christians, however, is not for their own lives alone. They fear that their churches will be altogether driven out and destroyed. In the words of Bishop Robert Rabbat, Sydney-based Eparch of the Melkite Catholics in Australia, "It is the stated intention of the Islamist fundamentalists to cleanse the Middle East of every trace of Christianity and all reminders of pre-Islamic history. It would seem that the present situation can only become worse". In 1993, there were about a million Christians in Iraq. By 2014 they were reduced to about 200,000. Yet these lands were flourishing Christian centres back when the Romans still controlled Britain. They have survived all the tides of history until today. But they may not last much longer. That is the great fear.
While reading this, you may be asking yourself ‘What can I do?’. The first answer is, you can pray. Given the scale of the tragedy, indeed, prayer is probably the only really practical route to a solution.
When it comes to giving financial aid, the situation is a bit frustrating. Caritas has an online appeal for the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Lebanon, but assistance to the Eastern Churches is not so organised. Bishop Rabbat, mentioned earlier, is President of the Conference of Bishops of the Middle Eastern Apostolic Churches in Australia and the organiser of a joint committee between that body and the Catholic Bishops Conference. His contact details can be found at melkite.org.au. Otherwise, look out for the next appeal at your church and, meanwhile, do a bit of research and then write to your member of parliament or the press, drawing attention to the fact that what is in train is not just a foreign war but a religious persecution on a massive scale.