by PAT McCARTHY
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians, who once made up one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East, are facing double discrimination as displaced persons in their own country or as refugees abroad, according to agencies working in the field.
Agency sources say Christian refugees who have fled their homes in Iraq have been ill-treated in refugee camps and frequently ignored in the selection process for resettlement in other countries or in reconstruction plans within Iraq.
Christians in Iraq — mostly Catholics of the Chaldean rite — numbered over 1.4 million, or 6 percent of the population, in 1987. After the Iraq War, around 400,000 remained by 2013.
At the end of 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that more than 4.4 million Iraqis were internally displaced, and an additional 264,100 were refugees abroad.
In January this year an alliance of 16 UK-based agencies working with refugees issued a major report declaring that Christians are not being supported by the international donor institutions and the UNHCR, and are having to rely on churches that are trying to run their own aid programmes with limited funds.
“All the NGOs involved in this report state that the vast majority of Christians and other [non-Muslim] ‘minorities’ avoid UNHCR camps and facilities because of continuing discrimination and persecution,” the report said, adding: “It is utterly unacceptable that a place of sanctuary should be a place of fear that repels those it is designed to save and protect.”
However, the report said those who remain outside UNHCR camps “have fared . . . unequally in the allocation of international aid, funding, political support, media attention, and asylum placements”.
The 88-page report, published by World Watch Monitor (an agency which “reports the story of Christians around the world under pressure for their faith”) said all the NGOs involved in the report stated that the vast majority of Christians and other “minorities” avoid UNHCR camps and facilities because of continuing discrimination and persecution, so they do not qualify to receive aid.
Noting that it is UNHCR policy not to record refugees’ religious affiliation, the agencies urged the UNHCR to scrap its “need not creed” approach and acknowledge the particular experiences of minorities such as Christians or Yazidis.
They also urged the UNHCR to employ more nonMuslim registration and security staff, and translators, to reduce discrimination against non-Muslims.
The report contained accounts of Christian refugees approaching UNHCR and being referred to local churches rather than being processed in the same way as other applicants.
In addition, it said some NGOs which are assisting Christians to leave the region have encountered opposition from the UNHCR either through unnecessary delays or blocked applications.
The report also warned that Christians are being excluded from the National Settlement plan being put together by Iraq and other regional powers and presented to the United Nations, further eroding the likelihood of their return once Islamic State has been militarily defeated there.
What the UK agencies reported about UNHCR camps was reiterated in an article by Samuel Tadros on the ABC [Australia] Religion and Ethics website on January 31, 2017.
“The prioritisation of religious minority application is not only justified, but would also correct a current wrong,” he wrote. “Out of 14,460 Syrian refugees admitted into the United States since 2011, only 182 have belonged to religious minorities — namely, 124 Christians, 25 Yazidis, 6 Zoroastrians, 3 atheists, 2 Baha’is, 14 ‘other’ and 8 with no religion. The reason for such a negligible number of religious minorities is that the United States government depends on the United Nations for choosing applicants from the refugee camps, and religious minorities fear living in those camps as they are subjected to persecution, preferring instead to go to church-run camps.”
An earlier article by Tadros, a senior fellow at the [US] Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, appeared on the same website on December 12, 2016. Referring to Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria, he wrote: “Unfortunately there is no longer any Christian presence in a specific geographic location that would allow the creation of a safe haven or a country of their own. There is simply no place for them, no mountain for them, that would protect them.”
The director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Nina Shea, reported on December 8, 2016, that persecuted Iraqi Christians had been unable to find shelter in UNHCR refugee camps anywhere in the region.
She wrote: “Monsignor John Kozar of the pontifical Catholic Near East Welfare Association, run by the NY Archdiocese, told a New York conference on Dec. 5 that Christians don’t dare enter UNHCR camps for they would be targeted by Islamic gangs within them. John Pontifex, a director of the papal agency Aid to the Church in Need, emailed me that he visited a UNHCR registered camp in Lebanon, from where, he discovered, all the Christian refugees had fled in fear, opting instead for the cramped but safer quarters of a nearby Christian home.”
In a Wall Street Journal article on October 7, 2016, Shea wrote that the UNHCR had marginalised Christians and others targeted by ISIS for eradication in two critical programmes: refugee housing in the region and refugee resettlement abroad.
Shea added: “Citing reports from many displaced Christians, a January report on Christian refugees in Lebanon by the Catholic News Service stated: ‘Exit options seem hopeless as refugees complain that the staff members of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are not following up on their cases after an initial interview.’ This failure could be another example of why the U.N. Internal Audit Division’s April 2016/034 report reprimanded the UNHCR for ‘unsatisfactory’ management . . . .
“As for why so few Christians and Yazidis are finding shelter in the UNHCR’s regional refugee camps, members of these groups typically say they aren’t safe. Stephen Rasche, the resettlement official for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese in Erbil, Iraq, told Congress last month that in Erbil ‘there are no Christians who will enter the UN camps for fear of violence against them’ . . .
“Persecuted groups also found no help from the UN-established Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria in its only report on ISIS genocide. Issued in June, the report focused solely on persecuted members of the Yazidi faith. The commission — an influential adviser to the UNHCR — dismissed in a short paragraph the notion that Christians also have been targeted for genocide.”
In an earlier article (July 21, 2016) Shea had written: “Today there is a complete absence anywhere in ISIS-controlled territory of functioning churches, active clergy, and intact Christian communities.
“[I]n the three major areas — Nineveh, Raqqa and Qaryatayn — where ISIS claims to have ‘offered a jizya [per capita tax] option’, the offer has always, within a short time, been followed by the rape, murder, kidnapping, enslavement, and dispossession of Christians — all acts evidencing the crime of genocide.”
A Jewish voice in support of Christians facing extinction in the Middle East was heard at an interfaith panel in New York on December 5, 2016.
“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 US 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.
The UK-based Barnabas Fund, an international, interdenominational agency supporting persecuted Christians, has frequently raised concerns about discrimination against Christian refugees fleeing genocide.
In a January 12, 2017, statement, it said: “Christians who have fled Iraq and Syria to nearby countries are largely ignored by the UN, with 97–99 per cent of those refugees selected for resettlement in the UK and USA being Muslims. Meanwhile those Christians who make it on their own to European countries such as Greece, Germany and Sweden are placed in refugee shelters where many are targeted by Islamists and are subjected to death threats and physical violence. At the moment there is little sign that Western countries will significantly alter their policies in either respect.”
In an earlier statement (December 22, 2016), the Barnabas Fund accused the UNHCR of “institutional discrimination” in how it operates on the ground.
It said this was shown by the fact that the proportion of Christians among Syrian refugees being resettled had fallen to less than 1 per cent in both the UK and the US, despite that fact that prior to the civil war Christians made up around 10 per cent of Syria’s population.
“The fact that they are so grossly underrepresented when they have been specifically targeted for at least the last four and a half years implies that both the US and UK governments would rather outsource their refugee programmes to an international body that blatantly discriminates against those facing genocide, than go to the trouble of selecting refugees themselves in a fairer and less discriminatory way. By doing so, they risk seriously tarnishing the previously high reputations of both counties for compassion, fairness and justice.”
On September 7, 2015, the New Zealand Government announced it would accept 750 extra refugees from Syria, over a three-year period. Media reports suggest that few in this group are Christian, although Christians account for 10 per cent of the population in Syria.