One of Pope Francis's top envoys visited the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on Wednesday, promising help and assistance to members of religious minorities in the area who have fled persecution at the hands of hardline Sunni militants. Displaced Christians, however, seemed less confident that the church could make any meaningful difference to their plight.
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, a former nuncio to Iraq, was dispatched to the country by Pope Francis on August 12 and tasked with expressing the pontiff's concern for the situation unfolding there.
Pope Francis, who has previously condemned the persecution of minorities in Iraq, wrote to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a letter dated August 9 and released Wednesday calling on the international community to act swiftly and decisively to help, saying: "The violent attacks that are sweeping across Northern Iraq cannot but awaken the consciences of all men and women of goodwill to concrete acts of solidarity by protecting those affected or threatened by violence and assuring the necessary and urgent assistance for the many displaced people as well as their safe return to their cities and their homes."
Tens of thousands have fled their homes since the extremist militant group known as the Islamic State overran large swathes of northern Iraq in June and gave Christian residents an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or be killed. An August 3 assault launched by the Islamic State on the north-western Yazidi town of Sinjar caused a similar exodus and unfolding humanitarian disaster in the nearby mountains where the Yazidi sought refuge.
Speaking to reporters at the Church of Saint Joseph in Erbil, the temporary home to a large group of Christians who escaped the Islamic State, Filoni expressed concern about the crisis and said that he would mobilize the powers of the church to help Christians and other minorities, especially groups like Yazidis, that have minimal representation in the country.
He said he hoped to help Christians to return to their homes. "They shouldn't have to leave Iraq," he explained. "We want a stable situation... Iraq will always have Christians and it was Christian before it was anything else."
Filoni told VICE News that a joint committee, including local government representatives and senior clergy, would study the needs of all displaced minorities, and come up with solutions to lack of housing and education which will be implemented by volunteers. "We hope to solve all of these matters," he said.
"People come and ask us questions and we're on the news, but nothing changes. We're tired of this, we want to go home."
The Kurds, he added, could play a unique roll in helping to resolve the issue because of their own minority status in Iraq. "Iraqi Kurdistan is multi-ethnic and multi-religious society which is tolerant of minorities...The Kurds are themselves a minority in the region and are acting like big brother to other minorities and so they have empathy for the smaller ones."
Sa Hadar, a 45-year-old from Iraq's largest Christian town of Qaraqosh who has been living on the church's grounds since fleeing an ISIS advance on August 7, told VICE News she was not confident that Filoni's visit would result in any appreciable improvement for her and her neighbors.
"I don't think that this will mean any changes," she said. "There have been so many days and nothing has happened, nothing has changed and no one is helping us."
She added that she felt badly marginalized in Iraq and ignored by the international community. "Christians are like the zero behind the decimal point here, we mean nothing... We have lost our voice. And People come and ask us questions and we're on the news, but nothing changes. We're tired of this, we want to go home."
Faith in Filoni's ability to make any significant changes seemed limited across the displaced people in the church grounds, as did his popularity. Some groups gathered at the entrance appeared to be waiting for the cardinal to appear outside after the press conference. It turned out, however, that they weren't. Sitting on a low wall with a number of elderly men, Behnam, 65, a retired economics teacher also from Qaraqosh, told VICE News that his positioning was accidental.
"We didn't even know [Filoni] was coming, we don't know how to spend our team here, we sit here, we sit there..." he said, sounding hopeful rather than confident that the visit would result in any difference for he and other Christians. "We hope that it will make some changes, we hope that any of our leaders, our cardinals, our bishops will... but if this continues, there is no future at all for minorities in this country."
He also said that he felt ignored by the West. "We are questioning why there is silence from the US and Europe. According to what we see, big countries and unions have interest in this region. If they're benefiting from its resources then why not have pity on its people.
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