The supplies sustaining displaced Christians in northern Iraq will
run out “within weeks” but UN agencies, accused of ignoring them, have
pledged to do better since the advent of US President Donald Trump, the
aid co-ordinator for the Catholic archdiocese of Erbil said.
Without significant financial aid and sufficient care, Iraq’s
remaining Christians, whose numbers have fallen from 1.5 million in 2003
to around 200,000, “could disappear within the next six to 12 months,”
warned US-born Stephen Rasche.
It is vital that the international community view them as “a
threatened people on the verge of extinction, the victims of horrific
genocide,” he added.“If we can’t hold this community together over the next six to 12
months, it will all be for nought ,” he said, adding that the Christian
presence in Iraq could be reduced to “a custodian population looking
after old church properties”.
A clinic run by the archdiocese, which lies in the semi-autonomous
region of Kurdistan and is caring for almost 100,000 Iraqi non-Muslims
who fled Islamic State jihadists in 2014, has only 45 days’ medicine
left, he said.
Aid to support the displaced, the majority of whom are Orthodox and
Catholic Christians, has fallen -because private donors are running out
of money, he added, pointing out that the displacement crisis is now in
its third year.
More than US$40m in aid has come from charities such as Aid to the
Church in Need (ACN), Open Doors, the Foundation for Relief and
Reconciliation in the Middle East, the Knights of Columbus and various
members of the Caritas confederation – “all church-related,” he said.
Mr Rasche was briefing UK journalists on the situation in Erbil the
morning after Wednesday’s terrorist attack in Westminster in which four
people were killed and as many as 50 injured. The attacker, Khalid
Masood, was shot dead by police. The public briefing was relocated from
the House of Lords to a nearby restaurant, because the Palace of
Westminster was closed to non-passholders, however he been able to enter
to address peers shortly beforehand. As well as outlining the critical
shortages in medicines, he told peers that the diocese’s supply of food
aid would run out in two months.
Mr Rasche also said that it was “absolute fact” that Christians were
discriminated against when applying for exit visas through the UN for
asylum purposes. Priests working with displaced and refugee Christians
have expressed frustration at the difficulties experienced in obtaining
these visas, and also at their bishops, some of whom have urged
embassies to deny Christians visas in order to preserve the Christian
presence in the Middle East.
His approaches to the UN for aid for the displaced minorities had
been met with the response “no, your [expectations of Christians’
living] standards are too high” and initially officials believed
Christians not to be in desperate need because Christian agencies around
the world had been quick to respond to their plight in 2014.
He said his requests to the UNHCR and the UN Mission in Iraq (UNAMI)
had fallen “on deaf ears – up until the last several months.”
He linked officials’ “change of tone” to the start of the presidency
of Donald Trump, who has vowed to improve efficiency at the United
Nations, to which the United States is a major donor.
“People at the UN Mission in Iraq have changed their tone with us,”
he said. “They’ve come to us in the last six weeks and said ‘we have to
“One of the things the US [government] is not happy about is that
none of the aid dollars have got to Christians. Many people in the US
government are surprised to learn it hadn’t reached the Christians.”
This change was discernible, in his view, “not just in the US, or the
UK, but globally,” he said. He attributed it to an improved
understanding of the circumstances Eastern Christians are facing.
“It has taken this change in our intellectual consciousness to
understand that the Eastern Christians are in a different reality …
they’ve been the minority oppressed religion for centuries”.
He also said that Americans are surprised to discover that “Eastern
Christians are the oldest Christians” and that the Christian presence in
Iraq long predated missionary activity in the country.
However a senior British defence adviser complained that religious
literacy within the British civil service is still too low, and has
linked the international community’s failure to reach Iraqi minorities
with aid to their high levels of emigration from their homeland.
Major-General Tim Cross, a practising Anglican and a senior figure in
the planning of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, told UK BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Programme that
the lack of religious literacy within the Foreign Office and the
Department for International Development (DfID) is evident “in the way
aid was being given to the region, by DfID and others, largely to camps
run by the UNHCR”. He continued: “They don’t understand that for most of
the minorities in the Middle East, who have suffered terribly over the
last few years, they will not go into the camps because they’re too
scared to do so.” Very little aid is reaching Iraq’s non-Muslims, such
as its Christians, he said, “and we’ve seen the numbers of these
minorities fall dramatically in the last few years.”
Meanwhile Mr Rasche said that as displaced Iraqi Christians weigh up
whether to return home or not, some are opting to settle in Erbil in the
Kurdistan region, despite differences in language, qualifications and
culture. Selling their land in Iraq, however, “finalises the elimination
of the Christians” and has led in some cases to an increase in foreign,
notably, Iranian influence, which has vastly increased since the Shia
majority came to power after the removal of Saddam Hussein. “There’s
real evidence that the money for these [land] purchases is coming from
Iran,” he said.