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ERBIL, KURDISTAN (ANS) — Around 10 Christian villages in the northern Kurdistan Region have been evacuated due to frequent and increasing Turkish bombings targeting apparent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions.
Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) reports Rudaw TV www.rudaw.net visited Christian villages in the Kani Masi District, where some homes are locked up and abandoned. There are 25 such villages in the district, including 10 or so evacuated ones, according to district officials. One local told Rudaw the PKK should leave the area.
“PKK better to go back to Turkey, and fight against the Turkish army inside Turkey, and leave Kurdistan region for peace,” said Shlimon Aseel from the village of Duri, where 15 of the 40 homes have been evacuated.
AINA said the PKK is a Kurdish militant group that has fought the Turkish state for decades for greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds. Ankara considers the PKK a terrorist group and regularly strikes apparent targets of the group in the Kurdistan Region. The PKK is based in the Qandil mountains along the Turkey-Iraq border.
PKK fighters are present in the areas around the city of Amedi where Kani Masi is. The area is in the Duhok Province amd close to the Turkish border. Most Christians in the there identify as ethnic Assyrians.
Sarbast Sabri, the head of Kani Masi District, says the Turkish airstrikes hit the district on a daily basis, and negatively impact the lives of civilians.
“Civilians in the area are living in continuous panic, due to the Turkish bombardments and PKK movements in the areas of Kani Masi,” he told Rudaw.
Civilians are frequently caught in the crossfire between Turkey and the PKK, and people empty the villages to escape the fighting.
According to AINA, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has repeatedly asked PKK fighters to stay away from populated areas and villages. Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has also voiced concerns to Turkey over civilian deaths resulting from Turkey’s airstrikes.
Baghdad has likewise called on Turkey to end its attacks, while simultaneously demanding the PKK leave their territories.
Turkey launched Operation claw in late May to drive the PKK away from its border with the Kurdistan Region.
On June 27, Turkish airstrikes resulted in the deaths of at least four Kurdish civilians near the village of Kurtak at the foot of the Qandil Mountains, where the PKK is headquartered.
There was a short-lived peace process between Turkey and the PKK which ended in failure in July 2015. Since then, at least 4,397 people, including Turkish security forces, PKK fighters, and civilians have been killed, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).
What Iraq’s Christians want from the West is to say the plain truth: that there is ethnic cleansing of Christians in the region and it is ongoing, Dr Tim Stanley told a meeting at the UK’s parliament last Tuesday, 9 July.
“If we don’t say what is really happening in the region, which is ethnic cleansing of both Christians and Yazidis, we allow Islamic State and other perpetrators to get away with it,” Stanley told the audience at the event, ‘The Global Persecution of Christian Minorities’, organised by the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign-policy think tank.
Since Islamic State was pushed out of the region, displaced Iraqis have slowly started to return to their communities but continue to live in fear and they continue to be vulnerable. Pockets of IS fighters are still active and the group has said it started the fires that in recent weeks torched hundreds of acres of land and crops, “owned by infidels”, in northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, Iranian-backed militias have moved into areas previously under IS-control, discouraging people to trade with Christians, Stanley said.
In January, a UN team started investigations in the country to collect evidence of genocide and war crimes committed by Islamic State fighters, in order to take the perpetrators to court in Iraq. The UN has been reluctant to recognise the violence against Christians and Yazidis as genocide, despite pressure from civil society groups and some of its own member states such as the Netherlands.
‘Instruments of the West’
Those who have returned to their communities and want to leave, face challenges such as the western visa application processes, according to Stanley.
The US, under the Trump administration, has taken fewer Iraqi refugees in than it did during the Obama administration. Instead, it sent an aid package of US$35 million to the region to support Iraqi Christians and Yazidis who had suffered under IS occupation. The UK also has been slow on the uptake.
Stanley acknowledged that it’s not always a simple matter of putting pressure on governments to treat Christians fairly. Christians often are considered to be instruments of Western governments, and as such are regarded as a threat to national identity or security. The challenge, then, is to help Christians without exposing them to undue risk, he said.
For the UK government, this could mean including the topic of religious freedom in future trade negotiations, said Dr Matthew Rees, Head of Advocacy for Open Doors UK and Ireland. It is one of the policy recommendations the Christian religious-freedom charity has made to the country’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the back of an independent review of how the government department supports persecuted Christians.
“Just like climate change, the topic of religious freedom is not a one-party or single-leader issue but something to grow consensus around”, Rees said.
Karamles, North Iraq (AINA) — There is no peace for Christians in northern Iraq. If, on the one hand, the memory of the violence perpetrated by Islamic State jihadists (SI, ex Isis) is still alive, in recent weeks another threat is shadowing the future of the community: the Shiite militias linked to the Shabak, who are in fact hindering Christians return to the Nineveh plain.
The epicenter of this new chapter of anti-Christian persecution is Bartella, increasingly drapped with banners depicting the militia battles against Isis as well as saints and sacred figures of the Shiite tradition.
“Bartella is a problem, a special case”, says Paolo Thabit Mekko, head of the Christian community in Karamles, speaking to AsiaNews. “In recent years – he continues – the presence of Shabak has increased dramatically and Christians are afraid to return. At least 600 families who have fled in the IS era are still in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, and have no prospect of return at the moment. There is a real demographic upheaval in the city, which began in 2003 after the US invasion and which has accelerated in the last period “.
The presence of local Shiite militias, adds Don Paolo, “creates unease and the prospects for the future arouse anger and concern”. The priest sees a behind-the-scenes attempt to “change the demographics of the area”, according to some a “design” orchestrated by the Shiite leadership and maneuvered from the outside, with the complicity of a part “of the Shabak politicians and exponents in Baghdad who support them “.
Until 30 years ago, the population of Bartella was entirely Christian. The demographic changes of the last decades have turned the composition upside down, ending up dividing it in half between Christians and Shabak, a largely Shiite Muslim ethnic group. When the Islamic State (SI, former Isis) conquered much of northern Iraq, including the Nineveh Plain, the entire population of Bartella left the area due to persecution by Sunni radicals.
Today, two years after the ousting of the “Caliphate” jihadists, less than a third of the original 3800 families that populated the town have returned. Most of them are still in exile and there is fear of returning due to persecution, threats and intimidation perpetrated by some members of the Shabak community, which presides over the Shiite militias that control the area.
Following the expulsion of Isis, confessional divisions, militias and armed groups are emerging with increasing strength, trying to get hold of growing sections of territory in northern Iraq, above all in the plain of Nineveh, which was once almost entirely Christian. Qusay Abbas, a member of the Shabaks in Parliament, said the attacks were the work of a small, unrepresentative minority.
But the stories (and complaints) from Bartella and other towns in the area tell another truth: That the Shiite militias are trying – most of the time by force – to eliminate the Christian component. In fact the cases of sexual attacks, thefts, threats and violence against private individuals is becoming more and more frequent. Recently, an ethnic Shabak man fired bullets in the air for over an hour in front of a church in the town.
“What is happening to Bartella – underlines Don Paolo – is repeated, albeit to a lesser extent, in other areas of the plain such as Karamles and Qaraqosh. We are facing a movement that seeks to expand “.
“A council of the sages of the Nineveh plain – he continues – which includes Christians, Arabs, shabaks has initiated dialogue and is trying to resolve the situation. Unfortunately there are no official agreements and there is no way to apply the rare agreements between the parties “.
In this context the Iraqi Church remains firm on the refusal to create a Christian armed militia and strengthens the initiatives of meeting and confrontation. “The situation remains delicate – concludes the priest – and Christians are afraid. One of the solutions that can be followed, and which we hope, is the establishment of an official, institutional police force, within which Christians can also contribute to enlisting the protection of law and order”.
Many of Iraq’s Christians celebrated their first Easter since returning to their homes. With the help of local churches and other organisations, people in the country’s largest Christian city, Qaraqosh (also known as Baghdida), have restored their homes and are now attempting to recover the lives they lost when the Islamic State group took over the city nearly four years ago.
The pastor of the Mar Behnam and Sarah Church, located in the centre of Qaraqosh, talks about how the city, which was deserted following IS’s onslaught, is starting to recover.
By Dan Wooding (Assist News) The Roman Colosseum will be illuminated by red lights later this month to draw attention to the persecution of Christians around the world, and especially in Syria and Iraq.
On Saturday, Feb. 24, at 6 p.m. the Colosseum will be spotlighted in red, to represent the blood of Christians who have been wounded or lost their lives due to religious persecution, according to Crux.
Simultaneously, in Syria and Iraq, prominent churches will be illuminated with red lights. In Aleppo, the St. Elijah Maronite Cathedral will be lit, and in Mosul, the Church of St. Paul, where this past Dec. 24, the first Mass was celebrated after the city’s liberation from ISIS.
The event, sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) — follows a similar initiative last year, which lit-up London’s Parliament building in red, as well as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris and the cathedral in Manila, Philippines. In 2016, the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome was lit.
Alessandro Monteduro, director of ACN, told journalists on Feb. 7 that the “illumination [of the Colosseum] will have two symbolic figures: Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian condemned to death for blasphemy and whose umpteenth judgment is expected to revoke the sentence; and Rebecca, a girl kidnapped by Boko Haram along with her two children when she was pregnant with a third.”
“One of the children was killed,” he said, “she lost the baby she was carrying, and then became pregnant after one of the many brutalities she was subjected to by her captors.”
Once she was freed and reunited with her husband, she decided she “could not hate those who caused her so much pain,” Monteduro said. [Read Voice of the Persecuted’s (VOP) report: Held Captive For 2 Years By Boko Haram: Rebecca’s Story and the relief sent to them through VOP’s aid mission, Project 133 Nigeria here.]
Aid to the Church in Need released a biennial report on anti-Christian persecution Oct. 12, 2017, detailing how Christianity is “the world’s most oppressed faith community,” and how anti-Christian persecution in the worst regions has reached “a new peak.”
The report reviewed 13 countries, and concluded that in all but one, the situation for Christians was worse in overall terms for the period 2015-2017 than during the prior two years.
“The one exception is Saudi Arabia, where the situation was already so bad it could scarcely get any worse,” the report said.
China, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria were ranked “extreme” in the scale of anti-Christian persecution. Egypt, India, and Iran were rated “high to extreme,” while Turkey was rated “moderate to high.”
The Middle East was a major focus for the report.
“Governments in the West and the U.N. failed to offer Christians in countries such as Iraq and Syria the emergency help they needed as genocide got underway,” the report said. “If Christian organizations and other institutions had not filled the gap, the Christian presence could already have disappeared in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.”
The exodus of Christians from Iraq has been “very severe.” Christians in the country now may number as few as 150,000, a decline from 275,000 in mid-2015. By spring 2017 there were some signs of hope, with the defeat of the Islamic State group and the return of some Christians to their homes on the Nineveh Plains.
The departure of Christians from Syria has also threatened the survival of their communities in the country, including historic Christian centers like Aleppo, ACN said. Syrian Christians there suffer threats of forced conversion and extortion. One Chaldean bishop in the country estimates the Christian population to be at 500,000, down from 1.2 million before the war.
Many Christians in the region fear going to official refugee camps, due to concerns about rape and other violence, according to the report.
ACN also discussed the genocide committed in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State and other militants. While ISIS and other groups have lost their major strongholds, ACN said that many Christian groups are threatened with extinction and would likely not survive another attack.
A spokesperson for Aid to the Church in Need, said, “We invite everyone to attend, either in person or in spirit, on February 24, 2018 at around 6 p.m. in Largo Gaetana Agnesi, Rome.”
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 77, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, Alfred and Anne Wooding, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for nearly 55 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan has written numerous books, and his most recent reporting trip for ANS was to Kurdistan in Northern Iraq.
HELP SAVE THE PERSECUTED
VOP is on the ground helping persecuted Christian refugees from Nigeria and Pakistan. Together with your generous help, we can reach the goal to alleviate horrific suffering. In darkness and desperation, let us serve in love, with open arms and giving hands to provide light and hope. Every day, we thank God that He is working through you to care for His children and to further His Kingdom! As you greatly bless others, may God continue to bless you. Thank you so much for your support. We couldn’t do it without you!
Qaraqosh (Agenzia Fides) – On Sunday 10 December hundreds of Iraqi Christians were able to take part in the celebrations for the feast of Mar Behnam (San Behnam) at the Shrine-Monastery where the relics of the Saint are kept. The Mar Behnam Monastery, a few kilometers from the city of Qaraqosh, in the Nineveh Plain, is being rebuilt after the massive devastation carried out by the jihadists of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (Daesh). The project to rebuild the important place of worship is supported in particular by the French association Fraternité en Irak. The large participation of the faithful in Eucharistic liturgies, celebrated outdoors, was an important sign of the will of the Iraqi Christians to return to live their daily life, marked by the feasts and celebrations of the liturgical year, in the places of its traditional roots.
The jihadist militiamen of the self-proclaimed “Islamic Caliphate” already in July 2014 had driven out the three Syriac Catholic monks who had officiated the monastery until the day before. Even some families residing at the monastery had been expelled. Since then, concerns have been expressed about the fate of the heritage kept in the ancient monastery, dating back to the fourth century and dedicated to the Assyrian martyr prince Behnam and his sister Sarah, which is one of the oldest and most venerated places of worship of Syriac Christianity. After a few months from the beginning of the jihadist occupation, as early as 2014 (see Fides 15/10/2017) the militiamen of Daesh had removed all the crosses and burned ancient manuscripts kept in the monastery. Then, in 2015, they had largely devastated it with explosives, and had not spared the Saint’s grave.
Last July (see Fides 17/7/2017), the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) had arrested some members of the so-called “Babylon Brigades” on suspicion of looting private houses and churches Christians, including the Mar Behnam monastery.
The Nineveh Plain Protection Units represent a local military organization, formed in part by native Christians and established in 2014 as a territorial self-defense militia.
The so-called “Babylon Brigades”, headed by Ryan al Kildani (Rayan the Chaldean), also claim their militia label composed by Christians, even if their connection with Shiite militias such as the People’s Protection Units is documented (Hashd al Shaabi) who also operate in the area. (GV) (Agenzia Fides, 11/12/2017)
Saints Behnam, Sarah, and the Forty Martyrs
…were 4th-century Christians who suffered martyrdom during the reign of Shapur II. They are venerated as saints in the Oriental Orthodox Church and their feast day is 10 December.
Behnam and Sarah were born in the 4th-century in Adiabene, and were the children of Sinharib, an Assyrian king. Whilst hunting on Mount Alfafwith forty slaves, Behnam became separated from his entourage and was forced to spend the night on the mountain. He received a dream in which an angel instructed him to seek Saint Matthew, who lived on the mountain, as the saint could heal his sister Sarah, who was afflicted with leprosy. Behnam met with his entourage the next day, and they discovered Saint Matthew in a cave and requested he join them on their return to the city, to which he agreed.
Behnam and his entourage returned to the city ahead of Saint Matthew and told his mother of his dream and the saint. His mother allowed Behnam and Sarah to return to the saint in secret, and he healed Sarah of her leprosy, after which Behnam, Sarah, and the forty slaves were baptised and Saint Matthew returned to Mount Alfaf. Sinharib discovered Behnam and Sarah’s conversion and demanded they abandon Christianity. Stalwart in their faith, Behnam, Sarah, and the forty slaves, fled to Mount Alfaf, but were slain by soldiers sent by Sinharib.
Following his children’s death, Sinharib was afflicted with madness. Behnam spoke to his mother in a dream and instructed her to seek Saint Matthew, as he could heal the king. The queen took the king to the place of Behnam and Sarah’s death, where he met with Saint Matthew and was cured. Sinharib and his wife returned to Assur with the saint and were baptised. The king had a monument to the martyrs built at the place of their martyrdom, and, at the request of Saint Matthew, constructed a monastery on Mount Alfaf, which later became known as the Monastery of St. Matthew. Sinharib had the martyrs buried at the monastery atop Mount Alfaf. In the 6th century, a Persian merchant constructed a shrine to the martyrs alongside Sinharib’s monument, and would later develop into the Monastery of Saints Behnam and Sarah. Source: Wikipedia
Even as the Islamic State (IS) loses its last grasp on Iraq, the group’s Yazidi and Christian victims are clamoring for a boost in US support so they can rebuild their lives. They complain that ethnic minorities are having trouble accessing the $1.3 billion that the United States allocated for humanitarian aid to Iraq in 2017, and have turned to Congress for help.
Testifying at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week, a former Yazidi sex slave who goes by the pseudonym Shireen warned that IS’ genocidal campaign will succeed without international help. The hearing aimed to hasten congressional action on the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act, which would authorize the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund faith-based entities providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqi and Syrian genocide and war crime victims rather than funnel the money through UN agencies.
Read the full story here.
LEBANON – Iraqi Christians protest “We do not want to go back to Iraq, give us permission to emigrate”
Agenzia Fides reports that Iraqi Christian refugees organized a demonstration in Beirut on October 11, 2017 in front of the offices of the High Commissioner for Refugees to ask the competent authorities to remove the obstacles posed to their expulsion requests towards other Countries, registered in the competent offices of several foreign diplomatic missions operating in the Lebanese capital. The demonstrators reiterated that they have no intention of being repatriated to Iraq, and have also expressed critical considerations towards their respective ecclesiastical authorities, arguing that they also contribute to curbing and preventing the granting of expatriation permits, because they are afraid to see the Christian presence in Iraq irreparably diminish.
The demonstration confirms the impression that much of the Christian refugees who have left Iraq have no intention of returning to their country, and they do not even intend to take root in Lebanon, but hope to emigrate soon to some Western country. (GV) (Agenzia Fides, 13/10/2017)
In February, some 200 Iraqi Christians protested outside the United Nations headquarters to demand the speeding up of their resettlement process.
In conversations with Iraqi Christians, who’ve left the country, told Voice of the Persecuted that entire families (or tribes) have left and now live in western countries, including the USA. More than one family relayed how volatile the situation is for Christians in Iraq. “We were forced to leave all we had behind. None of us, not one relative remains. We left our generational homeland set to never return.”
Please pray for Christians fleeing persecution, in countries of concern. That they will receive special consideration for resettlement, as they’re run out of places to live in peace.