The urgency of the problems facing displaced Iraqi Christians has driven a new campaign by the Knights of Columbus to resettle an entire village in their homes, says a spokesman for the Knights.
The roughly 200,000 Christians still in Iraq — down from 1.5 million in 2003 — “are increasingly feeling a sense of hopelessness over the situation,” Andrew Walther, vice president of communications for the Knights of Columbus, told CNA on Thursday.
Even with Islamic State swept out of most of Iraq, many Christian families who lived in Mosul or on the nearby Nineveh Plain are not yet able to return to their homes, three years after being displaced by the group.
With their lives as internally displaced persons surpassing the three-year mark, “it was made very clear that if there weren’t concrete steps that showed people that moving home was possible in the next 30 to 60 days, there was a very good chance that many of them would just leave for other countries in the region, for wherever they could go,” Walther said.
The Knights of Columbus announced this week that it was beginning a $2 million drive to raise and donate money to resettle an entire village of families in Karemlesh, a town on the Nineveh Plain 18 miles outside Mosul. Most of the families are Chaldean or Syriac Christians, with some Shabak families, Walther said.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson announced the drive during his annual remarks on Tuesday at the 135th annual international convention of the Knights of Columbus. The group is an international Catholic men’s organization with over 1.9 million members in councils all over the world.
“Now we will ensure that hundreds of Christian families driven from their homes can return to these two locations and help to ensure a pluralistic future for Iraq,” Anderson said on Tuesday announcing the drive. 100 percent of the funds raised would go to help Christians rebuild their homes.
The Islamic State swept through large swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, giving families of Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities an ultimatum — convert to Islam, die, or leave.
“When ISIS took the town, everybody fled,” Walther said, and militants began their campaign of cultural genocide: burning homes, desecrating parishes, destroying Christian symbols, and even digging up the body of a local priest to desecrate his grave.
“They wanted not just to erase the Christians from the town, they wanted to erase whatever was reminiscent of Christianity from the town as well,” Walther said.
Many Christians fled eastward to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where around 70,000 Christians were living in and around the city of Erbil, dependent upon aid groups for their basic needs.
Since 2014, the Knights have already provided over $13 million in aid to Christians in Iraq and Syria who have suffered persecution, most notably at the hands of Islamic State.
The Knights also helped produce a report for the U.S. State Department, which requested it, detailing the violence and forced displacement inflicted upon Christians in Syria and Iraq. The report helped lead to the State Department declaring in March of 2016 that Islamic State was committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State has since been forced back from much of the territory it gained, including the Nineveh Plain and Mosul. “With the departure of ISIS as a meaningful military force, you have a lot of new opportunities, in terms of rebuilding and resettling, that you didn’t have six months ago, three months ago,” Walther said.
Now, however, many Christians have still not been able to return to their homes, which were vandalized, damaged, or destroyed by Islamic State militants. Their future is in question as they are currently living as displaced persons in Kurdistan. The situation is so bleak that local Church leaders are saying that if something is not done to remedy the problem, Christians could leave Iraq for good.
If that is the case, it would be an ideological victory for Islamic State, whose “program was the de-Christianization of Iraq, the total obliteration of any religious minorities,” Walther said.
Furthermore, with Christians gone, it could further destabilize Iraq by helping eliminate religious pluralism. “Christians are an enormous example of forgiveness, and they’ve been praised by imams in Iraq, by television commentators in Egypt, for this capacity of forgiveness,” Walther said.
And if the Christians have no more roots in the land where they have lived for centuries, a priceless cultural vestige could be gone as well.
The government of Hungary has already given $2 million to move around 1,000 families back to the town of Telskuf, Walther said, providing a working example that such a plan can be successful.
“We have a proof of concept, we know this can work, and we know that if it worked in Telskuf, there’s no reason that it wouldn’t work in a town also in Nineveh that is also predominately Christian that also has its population in Erbil,” he said.
The money would go to provide materials for Christians to repair their homes from the destruction that Islamic State inflicted. “The families are actually putting their own lives back together with a little bit of assistance,” Walther said. “The idea is to make these houses habitable.”
And although a goal of $2 million is lofty, it is entirely within reach if parishes and communities all over the world pitch in, Walther said.
“An individual can do this,” he said. “A prayer group can do this. 20 people put in $100, you can send somebody home. This is one of those things where people can do a concrete, tangible action that is a meaningful step in saving Christianity in the Middle East.”
“It’s a model that can allow Christianity to be transplanted back to where it was,” Walther said. “It’s an early step, but it’s an important step if Christianity is going to survive in Iraq.”
Donations to the project can be made at www.christiansatrisk.org or via phone at 1-800-694-5713. Donations are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law, the Knights said.