Catholic bishops in dioceses around the world chimed their church bells at noon on Aug. 15 — the Feast of the Assumption of Mary — in solidarity with Christians in the Middle East, who continue to face grave peril more than a year after Islamic State (IS) militants began to conquer towns in Iraq and Syria, violently targeting Iraqi Christians and other faith groups in their quest to seize power and territory.
In an Aug. 6 letter, Pope Francis prayed for increased global awareness of the continuing religious persecution, and called for the international community to no longer remain “mute and unresponsive before such unacceptable crimes.”
Since IS (an extremist Islamic group formerly known as ISIS) forces began their major offensive in June 2014, more than 2.5 million refugees — many of them Christians — have been forced to flee from their homes in Mosul and Qaraqosh (historically Iraq’s most Christian cities) and other towns in northern Iraq, to Erbil and other cities in the Kurdish area, or to neighboring countries, such as Jordan.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to date more than 57,000 Iraqis have been given refuge in Jordan. In his letter, Pope Francis thanked those “who took on the care of these brothers and sisters, not turning their gaze away.”
For Father Aphram Mushe, interim administrator at Jesus Sacred Heart Antiochene Syrian Catholic Church in North Hollywood, the tragic events in the Middle East reach the hearts of his parishioners. Of the estimated 400 families who are currently members of Sacred Heart, about 3/4 are from Syria or are of Syrian descent, and the rest are of Iraqi origin, he recently told The Tidings.
Father Mushe said he often speaks with parishioners about the situation, prays with them, and worries with them as well — his own family members in Iraq have been living as refugees for over a year, after being forced to abandon their homes in Qaraqosh (located southeast of Mosul) in early August 2014 when IS took over.
Nearly his entire family has been displaced, including two brothers, five sisters, their spouses and children, several cousins and numerous friends, he recounted.
“When ISIS attacked my town and all the Christians living there, they left in the middle of the night, and about 50,000 fled to Kurdistan — to Erbil, to Sulaimaniya,” he explained. Sadly, his family was unable to escape in time to avoid their most tragic loss — the murder of his young nephew at the hands of IS.
Today life remains a daily challenge for his loved ones and other refugees, according to Father Mushe. Although they do receive some government assistance, as well as donations and support from the Church and charitable organizations, many are still living in tents or cabins, struggle for food, and continue to do without electricity and other necessities because they cannot afford to rent homes, he said.
But, he added, “Many of them work” — whenever and wherever they can.
“All of these people are refugees, but they continue to work with the hope that maybe one day they can go back to their homes,” said Father Mushe.
The Knights of Columbus recently unveiled a plan to expand their existing fundraising campaign to aid Christian families in the Middle East like Father Mushe’s.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson led an Aug. 4 news conference during the Knights’ 2015 Supreme Convention in Philadelphia, telling reporters that they plan to increase their efforts to grow their Christian Refugee Relief Fund, which has raised $3 million thus far, to provide humanitarian aid for Christians facing danger and persecution across the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq.
To obtain additional information about the Knights’ Christian Refugee Relief Fund, or to make a donation, go to: www.christiansatrisk.org.