After meeting with church leaders in northern Iraq, a U.S. bishop said
he will advocate differently for Iraqi religious minorities.
Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told Catholic News Service by
phone that the Iraqi Catholic clergy do not want to see a safe corridor
set up for Christians, as some in Washington have suggested.
security is paramount, they prefer to see reconciliation take place,
enabling Iraq's diverse mosaic of religions and ethnicities to live side
by side. But that means trust would need to be rebuilt, and that could
prove tricky given the regional and local players involved in Iraq's
multilayered sectarian conflict.
"We don't want to live in a
ghetto. That is counterproductive. That makes us a target for our
enemies. We have to live in a secure but integrated community where
Chaldean Catholics, Syriac Catholics, Sunni Muslims, etc., have
relationships with each other," Cantu told CNS, recounting the remarks
made by Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Moshe of Mosul, Iraq.
said the archbishop told him: "We need an integrated reality, rather
than a 'Gaza' where there's a wall and someone is guarding people going
in and out."
Cantu chairs the U.S. bishops' Committee on
International Justice and Peace. In that capacity, he led a small
delegation on January 11-13 to see and hear Christian perspectives in
the aftermath of the Islamic State assault in 2014 and the current
U.S.-led coalition's battle to flush out the militants.
clergy "really want to establish some normalcy in the midst of
displacement," Cantu said. He said he was amazed by the speed with which
Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil has started a
Catholic university to provide education and direction to the youth.
Warda also has restored personal dignity by moving displaced Christians from camps into homes with a rent assistance program.
Moshe has built a church, an elementary school and a new Catholic
University of Qaraqosh, serving both Christians and Muslims, on land
provided by the Kurdish authorities. All of these facilities were lost
when Islamic State militants invaded Mosul and the surrounding villages
in June and August 2014.
Still, "there is a reality of the wounds
created by the neighbors who turned on neighbors," said Cantu. He was
told that after Christians went back to check on their properties
following the liberation from Islamic State, in some instances,
"neighbors went in, looted and later burned their homes."
terrifying escape from Mosul for a number of Dominican Sisters has left a
profound "sadness in their eyes and voices that question what's the
best for these Christians," Cantu said, "whether it is to stay in the
midst of anguish and terror or seek safety and security elsewhere in the
The displaced Dominicans have been helping other
displaced Christians with shelter, provisions and most recently, by
setting up and running a school.
"I was so taken by their commitment to stay as long as there are Christians in Iraq," Cantu said.
Cantu and Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. bishops' Office of
International Justice and Peace, made a similar visit to northern Iraq
two years ago. This time they were also joined by Bill O'Keefe, vice
president for government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief
O'Keefe told CNS that, after speaking with internally
displaced Christians in Iraq, he realizes the immense challenges they
"The physical damage to their traditional Christian villages
is severe, and security and trust aren't present to make them
comfortable in going back," O'Keefe said. "They need to have their
security and their full human rights respected to be able to return."
said it's not clear how that will be accomplished. However, O'Keefe
said it was "the responsibility of the central Iraqi state, the Kurdish
government (in the north), and other players involved to come up with a
vision where minority rights are respected and adequate security is
O'Keefe felt there was a "bit of a lost hope as the Christians have to grapple with the vulnerability they find themselves in."
he said CRS is looking very seriously at rebuilding in the next phase,
the message the delegation got from Iraqi Christians is that "rebuilding
needs to follow security."
"They weren't ready yet to talk about
specific plans for rebuilding. Rather they need to know how safety and
security will be provided, which would allow them to stay," O'Keefe
said. "That's the first problem which needs to be solved and it's
inherently a political one."
To that end, Colecchi said the U.S.
bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace in Washington will
advocate for the U.S. government to do a "much better job of working
with all the political entities in the region to come up with a
political solution to create an inclusive Iraq.
"Rights are based
on citizenship, the rule of law, equal protection, and where towns and
villages have good degree of self-rule so they can shape their own
destiny and have a real voice in decisions and more immediately impact
their community," Colecchi said. "That's how you create protection."
Moshe and Warda seek Washington's help to build local institutions,
train police forces, and the judiciary, Colecchi said. But the primary
need is to create the rule of law and citizen rights.
welcomed last year's resolution by the U.S. Congress declaring that
Islamic State has committed genocide against minorities in Iraq and
Syria, Colecchi said. He said the archbishop felt the resolution would
focus the world's attention on the horror as well as force Iraqis to
acknowledge that genocide has taken place and to make sure it will not