Iraqi refugeesSpeech pronounced before the U.S. Congres on 13th May 2015.
«In November 2009 a bomb was detonated at our convent in Mosul. Five sisters were in the building at the time and they were lucky to have escaped unharmed. Our priory, sister Maria Hanna, asked for protection from local civil[isation] authorities, but the plea went unanswered. As such, she had no choice but to move us to Qaraqosh.
Then in June 10, 2014, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, invaded the Niniveh plain, which is where Qaraqosh is located. Starting with the city of Mosul, ISIS overran one city and town after another, giving the Christians of the region three choices: convert to Islam, pay a tribute, al-jizya, to ISIS, or leave their city, cities like Mosul, with nothing more than the clothes on their bag. As these horrors spread through the Niniveh plain, by August 6 2014, Niniveh was emptied of Christians and sadly, for the first time since the seventh century AD, no church bells rang for Mass in the Niniveh plain.
From June 2014 forward, more than 120,000 people found themselves displaced and homeless in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, leaving behind their heritage and all they had worked for over the centuries. This uprooting, this theft of everything that the Christians owned, displaced them, body and soul, sweeping away their humanity and dignity.
To add insult to injury, the initiatives and actions of both the Iraqi and Kurdish governments were at best modest and slow. Apart from allowing Christians to enter their region, the Kurdish government did not offer any aid, either financial or material. I understand the great strain that these events have placed on Baghdad and Erbil. However, it has been almost a year and Christian Iraqi citizens are still in dire need for help. Many people spent days and weeks in the streets before they found shelter and tents, schools and host. Thankfully, the Church in the Kurdistan region stepped forward and cared for the displaced Christians, doing her very best to handle this disaster. Church buildings were open to accommodate the people. Food and non-food items were provided to meet the immediate needs of the people and medical health services were also provided. Moreover, the Church put out a call and many humanitarian organizations answered with aid for thousands of people in need.
Presently, we are grateful for what has been done, with most people now sheltered in small pre-fabricated containers or some homes. Though better than living on the streets or in the abandoned buildings, these small units are few in number and are crowded with 3 families, each with multiple people, often accommodated in one unit. This of course increases tension and conflict, even within the same family.
There are many who say: “Why don’t the Christians just leave Iraq and move to another country and be done with it”? To this question we would respond: “Why should we leave our country? What have we done? The Christians of Iraq are the first people of the land. You read about us in the Old Testament of the Bible. Christianity came to Iraq from the very earliest days, through the preaching and witness of Saint Thomas and others of the Apostles and Church Elders.
While our ancestors experienced all kinds of persecution, they stayed in their land, building a culture that has served the humanity for ages. We, as Christians, do not want or deserve to leave or be forced out of our country any more than you might want to leave or be forced out of yours. But the current persecution that our community is facing is the most brutal in our history. Not only we have been robbed of our homes, property and land, but our heritage is being destroyed as well. ISIS has and continues to demolish and bomb our churches, cultural artefacts and sacred places like Mar Behnam and His Sister, a fourth-century monastery, and Saint George monastery in Mosul.
Uprooted and forcefully displaced, we have realized that ISIS plans to evacuate the land of Christians and wipe the earth clean of any evidence that we ever existed. This is cultural and human genocide. The only Christians that remain in the Niniveh plain are those who are held as hostages.
To restore and to rebuild the Christian community in Iraq the following needs are urgent:
- Liberating our homes form ISIS and helping us return.
- A coordinated effort to rebuild what was destroyed, roads, water and electrical supplies and buildings, including our churches and monasteries.
- Encouraging enterprises that contribute to the building of Iraq and interreligious dialogue. This could be through schools, academies and pedagogical projects.
I am but one small person, a victim myself of ISIS and all of its brutality. Coming here has been difficult for me. As a religious sister, I am not comfortable with the media and so much attention. But I am here and I am here to ask you, to implore you, for the sake of our common humanity, to help us. Stand with us as we, as Christians, have stood with all the people of the world and help us! We want nothing more than to go back to our lives. We want nothing more than to go home. Thank you and God bless you.»