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U.S. bishops call for solidarity with Middle East victims of violence, refugees

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WASHINGTON — Christians and all people in the Middle East need the solidarity of the U.S. Catholic Church, said the chairmen of three committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the head of the Catholic Relief Services board.

The damaged entrance of St. Mary's Church is seen in 2016 in Damascus, Syria. Christians and all people in the Middle East need the solidarity of the U.S. Catholic Church, said the chairmen of three committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the head of the Catholic Relief Services board. (CNS photo/Mohammed Badra, EPA)

The damaged entrance of St. Mary’s Church is seen in 2016 in Damascus, Syria. Christians and all people in the Middle East need the solidarity of the U.S. Catholic Church, said the chairmen of three committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the head of the Catholic Relief Services board. (CNS photo/Mohammed Badra, EPA)

“A concern for our Christian brethren is inclusive and does not exclude a concern for all the peoples of the region who suffer violence and persecution, both minorities and majorities, both Muslims and Christians,” said a Feb. 10 statement from four bishops.

“To focus attention on the plight of Christians and other minorities is not to ignore the suffering of others,” the statement said. “Rather, by focusing on the most vulnerable members of society, we strengthen the entire fabric of society to protect the rights of all.”

The group included Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace; Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the Committee on Migration; and Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, New York, chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services.

The group pointed to the findings of a recent USCCB delegation to Iraq, which confirmed that Christians, Yezidis, Shiite Muslims and other minorities had experienced genocide at the hands of the Islamic State group.

“It is important for Syrians and Iraqis of all faiths to recognize this as genocide, for that recognition is a way to help everyone come to grips with what is happening and to form future generations that will reject any ideology that leads to genocidal acts and other atrocities,” the bishops said in their statement.

The bishops called on Americans to accept “our nation’s fair share” of vulnerable families, regardless of religion and ethnicity, for resettlement as refugees. They called for special consideration of the victims of genocide and other violence.

They urged the U.S. to encourage the Iraqi government and the regional government in Irbil, Iraq, to “strengthen the rule of law based on equal citizenship and ensure the protection of all.”

U.S. aid should assist local and national efforts to improve policing and the court system and encourage local self-governance, the bishops said. Similar efforts are needed in Syria as well, they said.

The U.S. also can provide “generous” humanitarian and development assistance to refugees, displaced people and Iraqi and Syrian communities as they rebuild, the statement said. Such funding can be directed in part to “trusted faith-based nongovernmental agencies” such as Catholic Relief Services and local Caritas agencies, the bishops said.

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Panel: Genocide, wars, indifference will make Mideast Christians extinct

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Catholic News Service

NEW YORK — Christians in the Middle East face extinction because of genocide, wars and international indifference to their plight, according to panelists at a Dec. 5 interfaith forum in New York.

A concerted multilateral effort to establish a safe haven for them while rebuilding their devastated homelands is preferable to massive permanent resettlement to other countries, including the United States, they said.

Men walk in rubble Nov. 13 near St. Mary's Catholic Church and St. Elias Orthodox Church after a bombing in Damascus, Syria. Christians in the Middle East face extinction because of genocide, wars and international indifference to their plight, said speakers at a Dec. 5 panel discussion in New York. (CNS photo/Mohammed Badra, EPA)

Men walk in rubble Nov. 13 near St. Mary’s Catholic Church and St. Elias Orthodox Church after a bombing in Damascus, Syria. Christians in the Middle East face extinction because of genocide, wars and international indifference to their plight, said speakers at a Dec. 5 panel discussion in New York. (CNS photo/Mohammed Badra, EPA)

Twelve speakers at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture event explored “The Crisis for Christians in the Middle East,” with a particular focus on vulnerable Christian minorities in Syria and Iraq.

Christians formed the majority in the Middle East until the Crusades in the 12th-14th centuries, but “the past thousand years haven’t been good in many ways,” said Jack Tannous, assistant professor of history at Princeton University.

Tremendous violence perpetrated against Christians led to widespread conversion, he said, and long periods of stasis have been punctuated by large-scale persecution and followed by immigration.

As a result, many Christians were effectively exterminated from the lands where they lived for centuries, said Michael Reynolds, associate professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University.

Genocide is the accurate description for the fate of Christians, especially in areas controlled by the Islamic State, speakers said.

Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said she appreciated that Christians were included in the March 17 genocide declaration by Secretary of State John Kerry, even if the inclusion, she added, was made with difficulty by the current administration and because “it’s popular to talk about minority religions.”

Kerry said the atrocities carried out by the Islamic State group against Yezidis, Christians and other minorities were genocide.

“Today we are witnessing the world’s indifference to the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East and Africa,” said Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and former U.S. ambassador to Austria. Referencing the Holocaust, he said, “Since 1945, genocide has occurred again and again. ‘Never Again!’ has become hollow. You can’t just declare genocide and say the job is done. You have to back it up with action.”

“Jews know what happens when the world is silent to mass slaughter. We learned it the hard way,” Lauder added.

“People turn off the Middle East because it’s so horrible,” Arriaga de Bucholz said, but having the U.S. declare genocide helps bring attention to the situation and opens the potential for action.

Msgr. John E. Kozar, president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, said his organization works with the Eastern churches throughout the Middle East, an area not fully understood or appreciated by those in the Latin church. The charitable and health care efforts particularly by women religious in largely Muslim areas have been well-received, and Christians and others have gotten along well, he said. Nonetheless, there is much outright suffering and persecution, he said.

“Syria is an absolute mess, but the church is still there,” Msgr. Kozar said. Lebanon is at or close to capacity with refugees. Jordan has the greatest concentration of refugees in the world, but its camps are plagued with extortion and a gangland mentality. Christians are considered third-class citizens in Egypt and still suffer reprisals after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. Christians in Kurdistan and Iraq face different challenges.

“We are accompanying Christians who believe that somehow Our Lord will accompany and sustain them. We try to bring a reasonable stability,” he said.

Msgr. Kozar and other speakers underscored the deep historic and cultural connection of the Christians to their lands. “There is a tug of war between the goodwill of people here in the West who want to welcome and adopt (the refugees) and presume it’s best to extract them from where they are, and the church leaders and most of the people who want to stay” in the region and return to their countries when it is safe to do so, Msgr. Kozar said. “Family, faith, and church and connected.”

Nina Shea, director of the center for religious freedom at the Hudson Institute, said the current administration’s lack of a religious test for aid dooms tiny minorities and the new administration must make sure Christians and other minorities get their fair share of aid destined for Syria and Iraq.

Also, the United Nations needs a plan to protect minorities. “Otherwise, they will become extinct,” she said.

Retired U.S. Gen. Raymond Odierno, former chief of staff of the U.S. Army, said during his lengthy leadership service in Iraq, he never had a specific mission to protect Christians. He said that was likely because there were bigger problems and if the U.S. singled out Christians, it might be interpreted by the Iraqis as trying “to force our religion on Iraq.”

Odierno said the new administration should be prepared to have a position on what happens to Christians when the fighting wanes in Syria. He advocated a multinational effort to establish a safe haven to protect Christians “until governments can receive them and place them back where they belong, or else, they’ll dwindle.”

The effort will only work if it is multinational and supported by the United Nations, he said. A solo effort by the United States would create a larger problem for Christians because it would look like the U.S. was unilaterally protecting Christians.

Odierno also suggested relocating Christians from the Ninevah Plain of Iraq to Kurdish-controlled areas during what he said could be a 10- to 20-year rebuilding process before they could return home. He could support a no-fly zone there if there’s a threat and if Russia participated, he said.

Odierno said it’s unclear if the U.S. and Russia can work together to protect Christians and he has not spoken to anyone in Russia, “but I believe we should be able to develop common ground on this.”

He said, “It’s up to us as a nation that supports all religions to assist when any religion is being attacked. We should be there and take a look at it … we may be judged 50 years from now.”

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York said when bishops visit him from the Middle East, “they don’t say a lot, but unfailingly cry and plead not to be forgotten. They feel desperate, alone and isolated.” He wore a Coptic pectoral cross, a gift to him from Egypt, and he displayed an icon of the Martyrs of Libya.

“We have a God who is calling us to a sense of justice, advocacy and charity. We cannot forget these people,” he said.

The event was organized by the Anglosphere Society, a nonprofit membership organization that promotes the traditional values of English-speaking peoples, in collaboration with the Archdiocese of New York and the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture.

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Kerry says Islamic State is committing genocide against Christians

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that atrocities carried out by the Islamic State group against Yezidis, Christians and other minorities were genocide, the first U.S. declaration of genocide since Sudanese actions in Darfur in 2004.

A man in Cairo Feb. 16 denounces the killing of Egyptian Christians in Libya. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said atrocities carried out by the Islamic State group against Yezidis, Christians and other minorities were genocide, the first U.S. declaration of genocide since Sudanese actions in Darfur in 2004. (CNS photo/Khaled Elfiqi, EPA)

A man in Cairo Feb. 16 denounces the killing of Egyptian Christians in Libya. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said atrocities carried out by the Islamic State group against Yezidis, Christians and other minorities were genocide, the first U.S. declaration of genocide since Sudanese actions in Darfur in 2004. (CNS photo/Khaled Elfiqi, EPA)

Kerry said he was not judge and jury, but the Islamic State had self-defined itself as genocidal because of its actions against Yezidis, Christians, Shiite Muslims and other minorities.

A 66-member coalition is “working intensively to stop the spread of Daesh,” Kerry said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. He said the world must “marginalize and defeat violence extremists, once and for all,” so they were not replaced by another extremist group with a different acronym.

“We must recognize and hold the perpetrators accountable,” Kerry said in a March 17 statement that included a litany of atrocities such as rape and murder. He said Christians often were given the choice of converting to Islam or death, which was a choice between two types of death.

Kerry said military action to defeat Islamic State was important, but so were other actions. He said the coalition against Islamic State was working to strangle the group’s finances and to ensure that people who fled would someday be able to return.

On March 14, the House of Representatives, in a bipartisan 393-0 vote, approved a nonbinding resolution that condemns as genocide the atrocities being carried out by Islamic State militants against Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in the areas it occupies in Iraq and Syria. They gave Kerry until March 17 to decide whether to make a formal declaration of genocide.

The European Parliament passed a similar resolution in February.

State Department spokesmen had said Kerry was studying volumes of information before deciding on the genocide information. Last October, they hinted that a genocide designation was coming for the Yezidi minority in the region, but not for Christians. The comments led to a firestorm of protest from Christian groups that resulted in the congressional action.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked U.S. Catholics to sign a pledge calling for an end to the slaughter of Christians and members of other religious minority groups in the Middle East.

“As a people of faith, we must convince the U.S. Department of State to include Christians in any formal declaration of genocide,” he said March 14, just days before Kerry’s deadline.

In his remarks, Kerry said the U.S. government did not have total access to everything going on but was basing its decision on intelligence and military sources and outside groups.

On March 10 in Washington, the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians issued a 278-page report containing contains dozens of statements collected from Feb. 22 through March 3 from witnesses and victims of atrocities carried out by Islamic State forces. The incidents included torture, rapes, kidnappings, murder, forced conversions, bombings and the destruction of religious property and monuments.

In Beirut, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan commended the “courageous and clear resolution.” He said adopting the resolution would “help the (world’s) first Christian communities survive in their homeland of the Middle East.” He made the remarks before leaving March 17 to visit Homs, Syria, his fourth visit since the liberation of the city.

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House panel calls attacks on Christians, others in Middle East ‘genocide’

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WASHINGTON — The House Foreign Affairs Committee March 2 unanimously passed a bipartisan measure condemning as genocide the killing of Christians, Yezidis and other ethnic and religious minorities by Islamic State militants in the Middle East.

The House body also passed a second measure unanimously calling for an international tribunal to hold the Syrian government led by President Bashar Assad accountable for war crimes for “terrible atrocities” committed against the country’s own people.

Kurdish women mourn during a funeral ceremony in Sirnak, Turkey, Jan. 10. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee March 2 unanimously passes two bipartisan measures to address war crimes and genocide in Middle East. (CNS photo/Refik Tekin, EPA)

Kurdish women mourn during a funeral ceremony in Sirnak, Turkey, Jan. 10. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee March 2 unanimously passes two bipartisan measures to address war crimes and genocide in Middle East. (CNS photo/Refik Tekin, EPA)

The resolution on genocide, introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska, “expresses the sense of Congress that the atrocities committed by ISIS against Christians, Yezidis, and other ethnic and religious minorities constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.”

“ISIS commits mass murder, beheadings, crucifixions, rape, torture, enslavement and the kidnapping of children, among other atrocities,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Ed Royce, R-California. “ISIS has said it will not allow the continued existence of the Yezidi. And zero indigenous Christian communities remain in areas under ISIS control.”

The Islamic State “is guilty of genocide and it is time we speak the truth about their atrocities. I hope the administration and the world will do the same, before it’s too late,” Royce added.

Supreme Knight Carl Anderson issued a statement applauding the House Foreign Affairs Committee for taking “a courageous and historic step in giving meaning to the words ‘never again.’”

“We now look forward to passage by the full House of Representatives,” he continued, “which has the opportunity to be on the right side of history in a bipartisan manner, joining its voice to those of the European Parliament, Pope Francis, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom and prominent genocide scholars worldwide.”

The Knights of Columbus, based in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Washington-based group In Defense of Christians are currently sponsoring an online petition www.StopTheChristianGenocide.org urging Secretary of State John Kerry not to exclude Christians from a declaration of genocide at the hands of the Islamic state.

“America must end its silence about the ongoing genocide against Christians and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria,” says the petition, launched Feb. 25 and being promoted with a new nationwide TV ad. So far, the petition has garnered almost 45,000 signatures.

Introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, the second resolution OK’d by the House committee “strongly condemns the gross violations of international law amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity by the government of Syria, its allies and other parties to the conflict in Syria; and calls on the (U.S.) president to promote the establishment of a Syrian war crimes tribunal.”

Royce in his statement noted that prior to the vote on the second measure, the committee “heard searing testimony regarding the terrible atrocities being committed by Syria’s government against its own people — widespread torture, industrial-scale murder, starvation as a tool of war and the terror of unending barrel bombs.”

More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and millions more have been forced from their homes in Syria’s civil war that began with the aim of overthrowing Assad.

A partial truce brokered by the United States and Russia began in Syria Feb. 27. A U.N. report said March 3 that “visible progress” has been made, but fighting continues in some parts of the country. Also, the cease-fire excludes areas held by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate.

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Mideast groups seek protected zone for minorities in Iraq, Syria

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan —A call for an area to protect Christians and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq is gathering pace even as April marks the centenary of the 1915 genocide of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians.

“We have met with representatives of four of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, Britain, France and Russia — and submitted our request for a temporary protected area to be set up for Christians, Yezidis, and other minorities in Iraq and Syria,” said Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council in Syria.

“Our issue is how to protect these people,” said Ishak, a prominent Syrian Christian political leader. He said his council and other organizations concerned about the future of religious minorities caught in the crosshairs of volatile conflicts in the Middle East “want a U.N. resolution drafted and passed that will provide for their protection.”

“We are asking for a temporary protected zone. This is different and separate from resolving the Syrian or Iraq question,” Ishak told Catholic News Service. “People are taking the call very seriously.”

“Representatives of 60 countries spoke in favor of the protected area at a U.N. General Assembly meeting. But Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria aren’t for it,” Ishak said of the March 27 meeting.

Ishak’s own Assyrian forefathers were victims of the 1915 massacre of Syriac-speaking Christians that took place in Turkey. Forced into exile, they took up shelter near Hassakeh, in northeastern Syria.

“There have been three massacres on the same people in one century,” said Father Emanuel Youkhana, who heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI. The group provides practical aid to Syrian Christians displaced by the recent Islamic State attacks along the Khabur River.

“The grandfathers of these Assyrians survived the Christian genocide of 1915 under the Ottoman Turks, referred in our language as ‘Seyfo’ or sword,” he told CNS by telephone from Iraq.

“We lost one-third of our population in 1915. Around 700,000 Assyrians from different denominations, including the Church of the East, Chaldeans, Syriac Orthodox, and Syriac Catholics were massacred,” he said.

Some 1.5 million Armenians also were killed in the onslaught.

Those Assyrians who survived fled to the northern Iraqi town of Dohuk, a province of Mosul, which became part of the new state of Iraq and a member of the League of Nations in 1932.

Father Youkhana recounted that on Aug. 6 and 7, 1933, another “massacre and the first genocide in the new Iraq took place in Simele, near Dohuk, against Christian Assyrians.” Those who survived fled to the Khabur River region of northeastern Syria.

Fast forward some 80 years. Islamic State began its sweep of Christian towns along Iraq’s Ninevah Plain last Aug. 6. And during this past February, it attacked the Christian towns along the Khabur, setting off another flight of Christians escaping for their lives. Around the same time, the militant group destroyed priceless, historic Assyrian artifacts in Iraq.

Father Youkhana has urged the international community to stop this “open-ended persecution,” saying it had a moral obligation to do so.

“If our history is being destroyed and our historical sites demolished, our present is targeted and we have been massacred, can we have a future?” Father Youkhana asked.

Others are also expressing deep concern over the recent violent attacks against Christians in the Middle East and their diminishing numbers, saying more help by the international community is needed quickly.

“Some of the oldest Christian communities in the world are disappearing in the very lands where their faith was born and first took root,” noted the Washington-based Center for American Progress. “Christians have migrated from the region in increasing numbers, which is part of a longer-term exodus related to violence, persecution, and lack of economic opportunities stretching back decades,” the center said in a report published in March.

John Michael of the Assyrian Democratic Movement told Britain’s Catholic Herald that “the West is arming and supporting the central government in Iraq, the Kurdish peshmerga, the Shiite militias, but no one is supporting the Assyrian Christians.”

“The Assyrians are totally ignored and being left to their own devices with no means to defend themselves against the evil barbarians” of the Islamic State, he said in an article published Feb. 24. “How much longer will this persecuted minority have to suffer before those in positions of power act to protect them? Or should we all remain silent whilst a massacre unfolds in the ancestral lands of the Assyrian Christians?”

 

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