Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
Early this month, Pope Francis summoned his papal nuncios (ambassadors accredited by the Holy See) stationed in the Middle East for an emergency meeting at the Vatican. They met from Oct. 2-4. Their purpose was to discuss the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, especially the plight of Christians in that ancient land that gave birth to the Christian faith. The Christian population has plummeted in recent years as Christians have borne a disproportionate share of the burden in a region rife with conflict and a host of humanitarian crises.
From Oct. 7-12, I had the privilege of traveling to the Middle East with Catholic Relief Services (CRS). We visited Gaza, Jerusalem and the Kurdish region of Iraq. Our purpose was to observe, to listen and to learn from local church leaders, government officials and aid partners. But most importantly, we were there to put a face on a human tragedy and to demonstrate the solidarity of the Church in the United States and all Americans with our brothers and sisters who, regardless of their creed or ethnicity, are caught up in a crisis of catastrophic proportions.
Currently, a delicate cease fire is holding in Gaza. But after 50 days of intense bombing, thousands are homeless, without livelihoods and without medical care in what was already a deeply impoverished region. Responsibility for the conflict and suffering must be shared broadly. But the number of non-combatants who suffered and died, including women and children, is a reminder that war is an evil scourge that disproportionately impacts the innocent.
It will take billions of dollars and international cooperation to rebuild this ravaged area. CRS has been serving in Gaza for more than 50 years and is already developing transitional housing to help meet immediate needs along with other services to help families, and especially children, return to a normal way of life as soon as possible.
After years of war and a vacuum created by political instability and the withdrawal of western military troops, ISIS has descended with a vengeance across the Nineveh plain and is threatening large sections of Syria and Iraq. We have all heard with horror the reports of beheadings and crucifixions, women and children being raped, kidnapped and sold into slavery. People are fleeing their homes in advance of this terrible scourge.
We traveled to Erbil and Dohuk in the Kurdistan region of Iraq where many of these internally displaced persons have fled for refuge. The Kurdish government in Erbil has welcomed the Christians and Yazidis, a heretofore unknown sect to most westerners. We met with the prime minister and some of his senior cabinet. We met with the leaders of the Chaldean Catholic Church and traveled with them to meet people who are being housed in parishes and unfinished buildings throughout the region. The scope of the crisis is massive.
With winter approaching the need for proper housing is urgent. CRS is partnering with the local church to meet these and other needs.
The appeal that we heard as a constant refrain from our brother bishops, from Caritas Iraq (the official Catholic aid organization in Iraq), from government officials and from thousands of suffering Christians and Yazidis that we met is simply this: “Don’t forget us!”
One of the greatest dangers that tragically could affect the future of the Middle East is the indifference of Christians and westerners. The Middle East is in danger of losing its Christian population and witness. Our voices must be raised in support of peace, reconciliation and respect for religious liberty.
The Christian population in that ancient land contributes greatly to the peace and stability of the region. The Church has a rich legacy through its education and health care services that foster respect for human dignity despite religious differences. Our challenge is to find ways to support the Christian people of that region so that they can continue to serve as a leaven and demonstrate that peace among nations and peoples, regardless of religious differences, is possible.
How to Help
To help displaced families in Iraq, Gaza and Syria with immediate needs, donate now to the CRS emergency fund.
Call: 1 (877) 435-7277 from 7 a.m. to Noon CT.
By Mail: Mail your check or money order to:
Catholic Relief Services
P.O. Box 17090
Baltimore, MD 21297-0303