The supplies sustaining displaced Christians in northern Iraq will run out “within weeks” but UN agencies, accused of ignoring them, have pledged to do better since the advent of US President Donald Trump, the aid co-ordinator for the Catholic archdiocese of Erbil said.
Without significant financial aid and sufficient care, Iraq’s remaining Christians, whose numbers have fallen from 1.5 million in 2003 to around 200,000, “could disappear within the next six to 12 months,” warned US-born Stephen Rasche.
It is vital that the international community view them as “a threatened people on the verge of extinction, the victims of horrific genocide,” he added.
“If we can’t hold this community together over the next six to 12 months, it will all be for nought ,” he said, adding that the Christian presence in Iraq could be reduced to “a custodian population looking after old church properties”.
A clinic run by the archdiocese, which lies in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan and is caring for almost 100,000 Iraqi non-Muslims who fled Islamic State jihadists in 2014, has only 45 days’ medicine left, he said.
Aid to support the displaced, the majority of whom are Orthodox and Catholic Christians, has fallen -because private donors are running out of money, he added, pointing out that the displacement crisis is now in its third year.
More than US$40m in aid has come from charities such as Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Open Doors, the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, the Knights of Columbus and various members of the Caritas confederation – “all church-related,” he said.
Mr Rasche was briefing UK journalists on the situation in Erbil the morning after Wednesday’s terrorist attack in Westminster in which four people were killed and as many as 50 injured. The attacker, Khalid Masood, was shot dead by police. The public briefing was relocated from the House of Lords to a nearby restaurant, because the Palace of Westminster was closed to non-passholders, however he been able to enter to address peers shortly beforehand. As well as outlining the critical shortages in medicines, he told peers that the diocese’s supply of food aid would run out in two months.
Mr Rasche also said that it was “absolute fact” that Christians were discriminated against when applying for exit visas through the UN for asylum purposes. Priests working with displaced and refugee Christians have expressed frustration at the difficulties experienced in obtaining these visas, and also at their bishops, some of whom have urged embassies to deny Christians visas in order to preserve the Christian presence in the Middle East.
His approaches to the UN for aid for the displaced minorities had been met with the response “no, your [expectations of Christians’ living] standards are too high” and initially officials believed Christians not to be in desperate need because Christian agencies around the world had been quick to respond to their plight in 2014.
He said his requests to the UNHCR and the UN Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) had fallen “on deaf ears – up until the last several months.”
He linked officials’ “change of tone” to the start of the presidency of Donald Trump, who has vowed to improve efficiency at the United Nations, to which the United States is a major donor.
“People at the UN Mission in Iraq have changed their tone with us,” he said. “They’ve come to us in the last six weeks and said ‘we have to do better’.”
“One of the things the US [government] is not happy about is that none of the aid dollars have got to Christians. Many people in the US government are surprised to learn it hadn’t reached the Christians.”
This change was discernible, in his view, “not just in the US, or the UK, but globally,” he said. He attributed it to an improved understanding of the circumstances Eastern Christians are facing.
“It has taken this change in our intellectual consciousness to understand that the Eastern Christians are in a different reality … they’ve been the minority oppressed religion for centuries”.
He also said that Americans are surprised to discover that “Eastern Christians are the oldest Christians” and that the Christian presence in Iraq long predated missionary activity in the country.
However a senior British defence adviser complained that religious literacy within the British civil service is still too low, and has linked the international community’s failure to reach Iraqi minorities with aid to their high levels of emigration from their homeland. Major-General Tim Cross, a practising Anglican and a senior figure in the planning of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, told UK BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Programme that the lack of religious literacy within the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (DfID) is evident “in the way aid was being given to the region, by DfID and others, largely to camps run by the UNHCR”. He continued: “They don’t understand that for most of the minorities in the Middle East, who have suffered terribly over the last few years, they will not go into the camps because they’re too scared to do so.” Very little aid is reaching Iraq’s non-Muslims, such as its Christians, he said, “and we’ve seen the numbers of these minorities fall dramatically in the last few years.”
Meanwhile Mr Rasche said that as displaced Iraqi Christians weigh up whether to return home or not, some are opting to settle in Erbil in the Kurdistan region, despite differences in language, qualifications and culture. Selling their land in Iraq, however, “finalises the elimination of the Christians” and has led in some cases to an increase in foreign, notably, Iranian influence, which has vastly increased since the Shia majority came to power after the removal of Saddam Hussein. “There’s real evidence that the money for these [land] purchases is coming from Iran,” he said.