Father Andrzej Halemba is the Middle East projects coordinator for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), an international Catholic charity. He spoke Sept. 9 about the situation of Christians in Iraq, two years after their flight from ISIS, following the capture of the city of Mosul and the Nineveh Plane. At that time, some 120,000 Christians fled into Kurdish Iraq.
Q: There are now reports that an attempt to liberate Mosul and its surroundings by military means is only a matter of time.
Fr. Halemba: That is correct. And the people are hoping for this. However this could lead to new difficulties. One must bear in mind that Mosul is a city with a million inhabitants. If an assault were launched, hundreds of thousands would flee the fighting. And where would they go? Probably to Kurdistan, which is already bursting at the seams. But it is also likely that many Sunnis from Mosul and its surroundings would enter the empty Christian villages on the Nineveh Plane and seek shelter there. This could create new and unforeseen difficulties; would they be prepared to leave the villages again to allow for the return of Christians to their land and properties? This scenario causes the bishops in Iraq real concern.
Q: What is the situation of the refugees today?
Fr. Halemba: Overall I would say that the people are no longer so lost and aggressive. The Church is doing a great deal for them, both spiritually and psychologically. The priests, and especially the sisters, are close to the people. The people are living with the situation. I am not saying that they want to live with it permanently. Of course not. But they have seen that they are not abandoned. We have set up schools. Soon, secondary schools will also be able to open.
The aim is to prevent a lost generation from growing up here, like in Syria.
Furthermore, most people are no longer living in tents or caravans but in rented apartments and houses. This has restored their dignity and the feeling of having a home again. Our subsidies for food as well as their own labor ensure that they are provided with the basic necessities. But naturally it cannot go on like this forever. The longer this exile lasts, the more people will leave. And many Christians have already left Iraq.
Q: Do you have figures?
Fr. Halemba: Of the approximately 120,000 Christians who originally fled, many have left. At the beginning we helped some 13,500 families. Today there are some 4,000 to 5,000 fewer families. They have gone. That is painful. But without aid it would have been even more. I am impressed over and again by the great inner strength of the people. Given the proper support, many would return to their liberated villages.
Since the summer of 2014, ACN has made more than $20M available for aid in Iraq. Alongside providing humanitarian aid, the organization will also continue to support the pastoral mission of the Church in the region. Besides funding for the training and maintenance of priests and religious sisters, there will also be sponsorship of catechetical initiatives, such as summer camps for young people.