Funds have been allocated by the United States to directly support Iraq’s dwindling Christian and Yezidi populations, but clergy also see unity as needed between Christian sects.
“They don’t ask if they are Catholics, Orthodox or others. They are killed only because they are Christians,” claimed Cardinal Kurt Koch citing Pope Francis ahead of a peace initiative attended by Catholic and Orthodox clergy at the southern Italian city of Bari on Saturday.
Pope Francis, surrounded by heads of the Eastern churches, told crowds that both churches should work together “in the hope that the art of encounter will prevail over strategies of conflict.”
Also attending the ecumenical was Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako of Zakho. He was named one of 14 new cardinals in June.
Christianity is one of the recognized religions in Iraq, but internal disagreements between Orthodox and Catholic sects have left the groups politically fragmented, in a country where religion often aligns with politics.
Koch described the situation of Christians in the Middle East as “most precarious,” claiming “wars and persecution have forced families to abandon their homelands in search of security and better life.”
One Christian MP told Rudaw in December 2017 that they estimate their population at 100,000. In the last 1987 census, 1.5 million Christians were counted. Local NGOs put the pre-ISIS number in 2014 around 400,000.
Koch said Christians should be closer to one another and the holiness of life is the “best guarantee for Christian unity.”
Nineveh and Kurdistan historically are some of the most diverse places in the Middle East, where Persian, Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish and Levantine cultures meet; at different times pre-Abrahamic, Abrahamic, and other ethno-religious minorities like Yezidis have coexisted, albeit not always without conflict.
In a bid to preserve the dwindling Christian and Yezidi populations, US Vice President Mike Pence announced in 2017 that USAID funding could go directly to faith-based NGOs.
At his direction, a USAID delegation including its Administrator Mark Green and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback led a delegation to northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Region from June 30-July 3.
In Erbil, they met with Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Church. They also met with Yezidi spiritual leader Baba Sheikh Khurto Hajji Ismail.
On the political side, the delegation also met with KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani “to discuss actions being taken by the Government of Iraq to better support these vulnerable populations.”
Green briefed Pence after returning to Washington.
“Since the Vice President’s speech in October 2017, the United States has directed over $118 million to promote the safe return and reintegration of persecuted ethnic and religious communities to their ancestral homes in Iraq,” read a State Department statement.
There are several barriers to return for Yezidis who are mostly displaced in camps in the Kurdistan Region.
“This funding includes crucial stabilization assistance to restore basic services like water and electricity; emergency shelter and health services; psychosocial services to help victims of sexual and gender-based violence with recovery; and legal assistance to help preserve evidence to prosecute ISIS members for their brutal crimes,” added the US statement.