Offering support and sanctuary to Iraqi Christians, the Archbishop of Lyon has launched a solidarity initiative twinning the French city with Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul. The Most Reverend Barbarin held a party for 800 guests.
Lyon’s Christian history began in the second century, when dozens of Christians were martyred by the Romans. Christians have lived in Iraq and other countries of that region since the earliest days of the religion.
A refugee from Iraq who now calls Lyon home told us: “My sisters-in-law and their children were driven from a village called Batala where they had spent a month living in the streets, sleeping on the pavement, until they were able to get to Kirkuk, where they were taken in.”
The head of the France-based humanitarian support group Fraternity in Iraq, Faraj-Benoît Camurat, described the sort of projects they pay for and carry out for displaced people.
Camurat said: “The biggest camp in Erbil only had four showers for 700 people when we arrived. We got to work fast to build more. There were already cases of skin infections breaking out. Humanitarian aide also means making sure people don’t spend the winter in zero degrees in a tent being flooded by rain.”
Church-based activities funded by donations abroad aim to integrate minorities through projects that benefit the majority of inhabitants. Yet the Chaldean parish priest of Lyon Muhannad Al-Tawil told us the heart-wrenching experience of sectarian persecution of one family.
Al-Tawil said: “They are sad to have abandoned everything, to have lost everything so suddenly, also because they felt betrayed by their neighbours, who marked their house out as Christian. They arrived here in shock, stripped of everything, panic-stricken and frightened. Their one goal when they come is to return to calm and peace here. Then they set about making their stay legal, and that’s quite a task. My impression is they go from one set of problems — first the danger, then leaving — straight to another kind, which is an administrative obstacle course.”
Christian donations from Lyon have also provided an ambulance, which is already in the field, to help mothers give birth.
With indigenous Christians, along with Muslims in northern Iraq and its surroundings under threat from the radical movement calling itself Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL), we asked the Head of the Chaldean Catholic Church Louis Raphaël I Sako for his views.
Louis Raphaël I Sako, Head of the Chaldean Catholic Church said: “I live in the place and I see the people, their suffering, their fears and their hopes. I believe it’s very important to raise public awareness on what’s happening to these Christians — not only Christians, but the other minorities too. Their existence, their presence is very important for the whole local population, and for the whole world. It’s a mosaic. It must be kept.”
Raphaelle Djebari, euronews: “The UN today said it condemns a ‘staggering array’ of gross human rights abuses in Iraq. Do you agree?”
Sako: “Yes, absolutely. There’s no order. The Iraqi army has lost control of half the country. It’s not a professional army. Even in Baghdad, we have problems with militias, not only the Christians but others also. There are kidnappings and threats. The government must be given help to consolidate, and also to form a professional army that can protect all the citizens.”
euronews: “President Obama has said it will take at least three years to solve the Iraq and Syria situation. Do you really think it was necessary to put a time frame on it?”
Sako: “Political chiefs have to give balanced speeches without traps. Firstly, he said, ‘we didn’t know, US intelligence didn’t know the size and strength of Islamic State’… when they’ve got satellites and have an ear pretty much everywhere. And then he said it’s going to last for three years. It is therefore a double message, a false message. It tells Islamic State: you’ve got three years, you have the time to reorganise, recruit more militants and sell more oil, and so on. And to the people who have been displaced, it says you’ll have to manage on your own, you can’t go home immediately or in the short term. Three years! People will leave. They’re desperate! They won’t be able to wait. It would have been better to say nothing, to keep bombing, instead of saying that. It discourages the population and encourages ISIS, Daesh.”
euronews: “You have said you are in favour of a ground intervention. Do you think that’s the solution?”
Sako: “Today, with these militants, the only thing that can get them out is a military force, so, not only air strikes but, I believe, troops on the ground, with the help of or the cooperation of the Iraqi army or the Kurdish army.”