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Iraqi Christians must not be forgotten

AMMAN (CNS): With the crises in Syria and Iraq deepening, an international delegation of bishops embarked on a solidarity visit to the forgotten Christians of the Middle East to urge an intensification in efforts to establish peace in the midst of the conflicts that are tearing the troubled region apart. 

Bishop Declan Lang, from Bristol, England, led 12 bishops from Europe, South Africa and northern America on the third and final leg of a pilgrimage to encourage Christians in the Holy Land.

Known as the Holy Land Coordination, the annual event was set up at the invitation of the Holy See at the end of the last century to offer support to Iraqi Christians.

The delegation took part in a packed, solemn Mass at Our Lady of Peace Centre on the hilly, tree-lined outskirts of the Jordanian capital where Bishop Lang said, “These people are of tremendous faith and that’s where they find their identity. What we are trying to say to them is that you are not forgotten.”

Highlighting the ongoing plight of Iraqi Christian refugees, who face another winter of displacement 18 months after fleeing persecution by Islamic State militants, the bishop said, “They want a future which is full of peace.”

The group of bishops had earlier travelled to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to encourage the increasingly dwindling Palestinian Christian population of the land of Jesus’ birth. 

But the bishops said that it also was important to hear from Iraqi Christians and other refugees, so that the wider Christian community can reach out to them effectively. 

Bishop Lang said, “It is important that we remind our governments and the general population of the situation” of the some 8,000 Iraqi Christians currently sheltering in neighbouring Jordan. Tens of thousands more are internally displaced in northern Iraq.

“So one of the responsibilities and obligations that we have is to keep reminding people of the stress and distress of the Iraqi refugees,” Bishop Lang said. 

One Iraqi Christian, identified only as Bashar, said after the Mass, “My family and I sadly feel that we can never go back to our home in Mosul.”

A mechanical engineer, he once owned his own telecom company in Iraq’s second-biggest city, which is currently in the hands of the Islamic State.

“The military didn’t protect us and our Muslim neighbours betrayed us, even robbing us of our personal possessions. So we believe that the only future for us is somewhere in the west,” the man, who now shelters with his family of four at the centre’s compound because he has lost his savings, said. 

Bishop Lionel Gendron, from St. Jean-Longueuil in Quebec, Canada, praised the work Caritas is doing with the more than one million Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as well as other humanitarian efforts in Jordan, but noted that it is only a band-aid solution. 

“It is not sustainable in the long run,” Bishop Oscar Cantu, the chairperson of the United States (US) Committee on International Justice and Peace, observed. He added, “It is also important that the US take in its fair share of refugees.” 

Stephen Colecchi, the director of the US Office of International Justice and Peace, emphasised the need for active international peace efforts that recognise the rights of religious minorities in the Middle East. 

“We’ve got to work for peace and ultimately stop the atrocities of Islamic State and the flow of refugees,” he said.

“A more united and effective response is needed to that kind of extremism from which Muslims are suffering and particularly, Christians and Yezidis, are targeted by,” Colecchi added. 

 

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