NEW YORK (Aug. 21, 2014)-Responding to what Iraq's Chaldean Catholic leader Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako has called "a human catastrophe and the risk of a real genocide," Aid to the Church in Need-USA (ACNUSA) has launched a major campaign to provide humanitarian aid to the Christian community in Iraq that has been terrorized by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for more than six weeks.
ACNUSA has made two initial grants, $135,000 for emergency aid for Iraq's Christian refugees and $186,000 in support of the Christian community in Syria. There, continued fighting between the regime and the opposition, the devastation caused by the civil war to-date, and targeted attacks are causing enormous suffering to local Christians.
"Both countries are threatened with the extinction of ancient Christian communities," said George Marlin, Chairman of the Board of ACNUSA. "Both Churches and governments in the West must do their utmost to prevent what has become a tragedy of historic proportions," he added.
Marlin urges the West to intervene to stop the atrocities of ISIS in Iraq, which have been marked by "cruelties beyond words." There have been reports of beheadings and crucifixions of Christians and other minorities. Water, food, emergency supplies and medicine "are the first order of the day," he said, but in the long term a lasting solution must be found that guarantees Christians' safe haven in both Syria and Iraq.
In the wake of Sunni-Shiite clashes in Iraq and the rise in Islamic extremism, the Iraqi Christian population has dwindled to some 150,000 from a high of more than a million. The Syrian conflict has sparked the exodus of almost a third of the country's Christian population of 1.8 million, the majority of whom are currently stranded in Lebanon. In addition, at least several hundred thousand Christians are displaced within Syria itself.
ISIS forces-which overran Iraq's largest city of Mosul in early June-have also taken control of the town of Qaraqosh and surrounding villages, the country's largest Christian enclave. Its 100,000 residents fled "with nothing but the clothes on their backs," reported Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad, who spoke in terms of "an exodus, a real via crucis." The fate of Mosul's Christian community-who were given a choice by ISIS to convert, pay a tax levied on non-Muslims, simply leave or die-left these latest refugees with no illusions. Only a handful of Christians remain in Mosul; most of the community has fled, robbed of their homes, all their possessions and their identity papers.
The bulk of the Christian refugees are making their way to Kurdish territory, where Church communities have a measure of safety. But an already overburdened local Church infrastructure will make life difficult for newcomers in Kurdistan, while the existing Kurdistan Christian community of some 100,000 is afraid ISIS forces may also attack that territory.
In Syria, ACNUSA will be supporting the Archdiocese of Homs, Hama and Yabroud and provide emergency relief for families in the country's famous "Valley of the Christians," which has seen some of the most intense fighting of the Syrian civil war.
"Not only is the rich Christian patrimony of these countries at stake," said Marlin; "Christians play a vital role in Muslim societies as a moderating force, playing an indispensable role in mediating between warring factions and maintaining relations with the international community."
The commitment of the Christians in the Middle East to "education and democratic values across the board" makes them peace-builders, he said-and that is a "vital interest for the West."
In response to these crises ACNUSA has pledged $1M to the persecuted and suffering Church in the region -a pledge its donors are asked to meet.
To support the $1M ACNUSA campaign on behalf of Iraqi and Syrian Christians, please visit www.churchinneed.org/helpIraqandSyria or call (800) 628-6333.