With all the focus on the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and related turmoil in the region, one important and tragic story has been left out of the popular narrative: the plight of the Middle East's ancient Christian communities. These once vibrant communities, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, face additional duress as winter approaches. The European Union must take concrete action immediately in order to avoid the loss of many lives and of humanity's cultural heritage, which they represent.
With no support from the central government in Baghdad, and Christian families largely unregistered for international humanitarian aid, the Iraqi churches' emergency committee has been looking after refugees of all ages and backgrounds mainly in Erbil and Dohuk in the Kurdish region. The situation in Erbil illustrates the problems the displaced face. More than 70,000 people have been forced to take shelter in the Kurdish capital in church halls, sports centres and classrooms. These spaces have all been turned into makeshift accommodation, with up to 15 families sharing a classroom. As the need exceeds the available facilities, many families have been sleeping in public spaces such as parks and car parks.
"Altogether, about 50 per cent of Iraqi Christians have been displaced or left the country"
The large majority of these displaced families left their homes with only the clothes on their backs, facing the dire choice of renouncing their faith or paying high amounts of money to the IS. A religious minority, the Yazidis, were hunted all the way up to the Sinjjar Mountains, and the media images moved the US to order its air force to the area.
These examples are indicative of the larger catastrophe facing the region's Christians. According to estimates from Iraq's Chaldean Catholic church, 120,000 Iraqi Christians have been displaced, out of a total estimated 240,000-260,000 (a number already greatly diminished by persecution following the fall of Saddam Hussein). Altogether, about 50 per cent of Iraqi Christians have been displaced or left the country.
Selective media coverage has led to the mistaken impression that Christians have not been persecuted, but only other minorities. As a result the Chaldean patriarch Louis Raphaël Sako was confronted during his information visits to Brussels in July and September, with the lack of knowledge about the situation of the Christians even among high level EU officials. And yet, Christians face horrific persecution, rape, women sold in markets, children pulled out of their mothers' arms and other abuses. Since IS seized the towns where Christians were living, there have been many martyrs.
"Christians face horrific persecution, rape, women sold in markets, children pulled out of their mothers' arms and other abuses. Since IS seized the towns where Christians were living, there have been many martyrs"
Christians and other refugees need immediate help with the most basic living necessities. Patriarch Raphael Sako said, "They need everything because the IS terrorists have taken all they had, physically, morally and psychologically. The greatest challenge at the present time is the provision of living accommodation… the winter is very cold in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the people cannot possibly stay in tents." In the absence of state support, the church has been bearing the burden of feeding and providing medicine and other necessities for the refugee families who fled IS.
Patriarch Sako and other church representatives called on EU policymakers to take two concrete steps to help Christians: exert political pressure on the government of Iraq and its neighbours to protect the civilians, and give more humanitarian aid via channels other than the UN agencies. "Many people refuse to register with the UN, they believe that if they stay outside the camps they have more chances to find a job and be quicker to return to their homes once the Nineveh plains are liberated", said patriarch Sako. "They do not want to depend 100 per cent on aid and the church can support them temporarily in this effort". The EU shares this view, but it has to make it a reality and extend its vision of the conflict to the Syrian and Iraqis who happen to be Christian.