As the heartrending images of Christians and Yezidis fleeing for their lives continue to pour in from Iraq, the Vatican called on Muslim leaders to condemn the “barbarity” and “unspeakable criminal acts” of Islamic State militants in Iraq.
From 7,000 miles away, Fr. Felix Shabi, a native of Iraq and corbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church of Arizona, said the demise of Christianity in his homeland seemed imminent.
“We’ve lived through difficulties before, but not to this extreme,” Fr. Shabi said. “All of us — we have cousins, friends, brothers there. We are in agony for them. They are starving, without food or water.”
Fr. Shabi said the refusal of Iraq’s Christians to abandon their faith in the face of annihilation is something that ought to open the eyes of those in the West. Islamic State militants, who gained control of Mosul in early June, have captured several Christian villages and cities in the surrounding area. The inhabitants were given a choice: convert, pay an exorbitant “infidel tax,” or die by the sword. Many were killed — even children — but some 100,000 fled, refusing to renounce Christianity.
“They remained faithful,” Fr. Shabi said. “They left their homes, their gold, their businesses, but not their faith.”
The Chaldeans were once the largest group of Christians in Iraq, but since the American invasion in 2003, more than half the Christian population has left the country.
“It looks like the end of the road for us,” Fr. Shabi said. “But thank God, people’s faith is strong. They are relying on God and the Virgin Mary.”
One aspect of the tragedy that few in the West understand is the sense of betrayal the Christians of Iraq feel. When Muslims first came to the Christian villages centuries ago, Fr. Shabi said, they were beggars.
“They came with nothing and we accepted them and took care of them,” Fr. Shabi said. Muslims and Christians became neighbors who looked out for each other’s children. That, he said, has ended.
“Now, for the Christians, non-Sunni Muslims and the Yezidis, even your neighbor that you knew for 30 years is leading the ISIS to your home or your business…everybody is betraying us. They want to cleanse Iraq of its original inhabitants.”
Fr. Shabi said he and members of his community think non-stop about what is happening back home.
“We are praying constantly, day and night. Even our dreams turn to nightmares,” Fr. Shabi said.
The local congregation, numbering about 1,000 families, has also been collecting funds to send to the Catholic Church in Iraq. Fr. Shabi said he is heartened by the news that the Knights of Columbus have committed $1 million to helping the Christians and other religious minorities of Iraq.
“We need actions, not words,” Fr. Shabi said.
Even as the news that many fleeing persecution are dying from hunger, thirst and illness, Fr. Shabi finds hope.
“In every event, we have to see the salvation of God, His plan and His mercy,” Fr. Shabi said. “Even with this genocide, our Christians are still the successors of the Church of the East that has endured persecution for 2,000 years and never left the faith. We are the Church of martyrs. Some of our people have died so that the people in the West can wake up.”
Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, said the organization was asking its members to pray for those being persecuted and contribute to the fund to help them.
“It has shocked the conscience of the world that people are systematically being purged from the region where their families have lived for millennia — simply for their faith,” Anderson said. “It is imperative that we stand in solidarity with them in defense of the freedom of conscience, and provide them with whatever relief we can.”
Pope Francis asked U.N. agencies and the entire international community “to take action to end the humanitarian tragedy now underway” in Iraq. “It is with a heavy and anguished heart that I have been following the dramatic events of these past few days in northern Iraq,” the pope told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
— Catholic News Service contributed to this story.