A ‘Never Again’ Moment, Again
Largely forgotten, Christians in Iraq and Syria continue to suffer from decades of war and persecution.
As the world was transfixed by the U.S. presidential election and its aftermath, an international coalition of diplomats and universal human rights activists came together for a virtual event in Washington, D.C. The gathering was to commemorate victims of Islamist atrocities around the world and to call for Nuremberg-style tribunals to prosecute ISIS perpetrators of acts of genocide and fideicide in the Middle East. I joined the event from Warsaw in the hope that our call for justice would also serve as a reminder to the world that the survivors of terror continue to need our compassion and help.
The idea of Nuremberg-style tribunals—of demanding justice for thousands of innocent victims of the war in Iraq and Syria—offers at least partial redress for their suffering. I personally met many of the victims and their families during my visits to Iraq and Syria as part of the Aid to the Church in Need mission. Our organization works in the Middle East alongside others from Central Europe and elsewhere, helping Christians targeted for cultural and physical extermination.
Volumes have been written about the plight of Middle Eastern immigrants reaching Europe. Regrettably, the idea of helping them before they become refugees, or making it possible for them to stay in places they have called home for generations, has received far less attention. Poland and Hungary are two European Union countries holding the view that the most important and most effective form of assistance is helping the most vulnerable victims of Islamist terror on the spot, right where they live. That is where aid is needed the most and where much can be accomplished with relatively modest financial resources.
Such on-site assistance—meaningful help that actually makes a dramatic difference to those who receive it—is indeed possible, even though the ongoing conflict hinders these efforts.
Since the outbreak of the war in Iraq, our organization has responded to the request of the Iraqi bishops to provide material aid for the local Christians who were particularly targeted by terrorists. Our assistance intensified especially after the expulsion of Christians from the vicinity of Mosul on June 5, 2014. Thanks to the donations collected in my native Poland from countless faithful individuals, we managed to provide funds to run refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. We financed food, medications, “container” schools, and more.
One such camp for 720 displaced Christians was run by Fr. Douglas Al-Bazi in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. For each family we purchased a metal “container” home equipped with air conditioning and electricity. We watched the difference this sort of help made and how effective it was. After three years, refugees under our care found jobs; they were able to move from the make-shift container homes to real apartments in Erbil. And, most importantly, they were able to remain in the region where their families have lived from the earliest days of Christianity.
Everything we do in Iraq, Syria, and now also in Lebanon is geared towards keeping the Christian communities of the Middle East in place, despite dramatic demographic declines. And to call these declines dramatic is not an overstatement. For example, in 2003, Iraq was home to 1.5 million Christians. Currently, their number is estimated at less than 100,000, and those left are by and large internally displaced persons. We are concerned that Syria will follow a similar pattern—more than half of all Syrian Christians have left the country already. Our organization runs a Polish healthcare project in Syria, financed jointly by the government of Poland and private individual donations from numerous Poles.
More than a decade of war has led to a total destruction of local communities and a virtual collapse in earnings. Unemployment in cities such as Aleppo, Homes, and Damascus reaches as high as 70 to 80 percent. An average salary hovers at around 100 U.S. dollars a month, about half of what it takes to keep an average family of five above the poverty line. Exhausted by the never-ending war, those people have been forced to watch their children and loved ones suffer daily for years on end, and they need constant help and support.
Last winter, children in Syria were freezing to death because their families could not afford to buy heating oil. The greatest drama facing the Syrians today is not just the conflict in which they are caught, but that the world is forgetting about them. As happened with Iraq, the long-lasting war led to the media war-fatigue of getting “bored” with the conflict in Syria. If 10, 50, or 100 people died in Damascus or Aleppo, nobody would be impressed with that news today. In fact, it almost does not sound like news at all.
The dramatic appeals of the pope or the local bishops, repeated after major tragedies or on the occasion of religious celebrations and during the pope’s recent historic visit to the region, do not elicit a sufficient reaction either. That is another reason why a call to bring to justice the Islamists responsible for the crimes committed against these communities and their wholesale destruction matters: International tribunals would remind the world about the forgotten and lonely victims of genocide and fideicide in the Middle East.
The care of children and young adults who have experienced the cruelty of war firsthand remains a very serious problem in both Iraq and Syria. When we look at that region through the lens of universal human rights, to say that what we heard or witnessed under ISIS rule in Iraq and Syria shocked us would not do justice to the moral outrage perpetrated on their most vulnerable victims. The Yazidis told us about the violence against women and total disregard for their rights and dignity. ISIS issued a fatwa in 2015 that allowed Islamic jihadists to possess “sex slaves” and profit from it.
Trafficking in women—girls, really—was one of the sources of funding for the barbaric activities of the Islamic State. It is estimated that this fate befell approximately 6,000 women, and according to our sources, the youngest “sex slave” saved from captivity was a five-year-old girl! One of the most haunting among the many impossible to forget images and firsthand stories from my numerous visits to Iraq is the Yazidi girls sold in the market in Mosul as sex slaves, with price tags of between 30 and 50 dollars hanging around their necks. In Yazidi culture, these disgraced young women could never return to their families. Even if they survived, whether freed or discarded, they often went to the mountains and threw themselves off cliffs from shame and despair.
One of the teenage victims made it to Germany, where she confronted her tormentor, a man over 50 years old. He bought her for 100 dollars, raped her, and then rented her out to other clients. She asked him, “Why did you do this to me? You have daughters my age, would you do that to them, too?” This child fainted from emotion. This meeting took place on German television—both the victim and her abuser were in Germany as refugees.
Through the involvement of charity organizations from Poland, we were able to help rescue some of those girls and young women and help tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis. Our care packages kept hundreds, sometimes thousands from starvation during the worst periods of the war. Medical assistance we helped organize reached some 40,000 people right there, in the conflict zones.
Children, women, and the elderly are always the most vulnerable victims of those wars, made all the weaker since they were often left behind by stronger men, defenseless, while many young men emigrated and can now be seen in the cities of Europe rather than in Syria or Iraq. There are many more stories I could share, but instead I would like to appeal, especially to those countries that have the means and the power to make a difference:
Please help Christians in Syria and Iraq, so they may be able to stay in their ancestral homelands, so that they may not die of cold, hunger, or lack of basic medical care, so that the cradle of Christianity in the Middle East does not become devoid of Christians. Solidarity with them is our duty.
Fr. Waldemar Cisło is director of the Polish Section of the Aid to the Church in Need International and professor of Interreligious Dialogue at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński Catholic University in Warsaw, Poland.