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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Why We Opened a Christian University in Iraq Amid ISIS’ Genocide

Catholic University of Erbil
The Catholic University of Erbil (courtesy CUE)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on May 7, 2020.

For 25 years, Stephen Rasche was a “bare knuckles” international lawyer. But in 2010, he offered his services to the Chaldean Catholic Church of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and has increasingly dedicated his life to the preservation of this ancient community.

Under the leadership of Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, in 2015 Rasche helped found the Catholic University of Erbil, where he serves as vice chancellor. Also the director of its Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity, Rasche lived this title as ISIS ravaged Iraq’s Christian homelands in the Nineveh Plains and many believers fled to Erbil.

After testifying on their behalf before the United Nations and the US Congress, Rasche allows them to represent themselves in his recent book, The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East. The book has won a diverse range of endorsements, from leaders such as Matthew Hassan Kukah, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria; Yahya Cholil Staquf, general secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in the world; and Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute.

The US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom reports that less than 250,000 Christians are living in Iraq, most in Kurdistan or on the Nineveh Plains. Two-thirds belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church.

CT interviewed Rasche about the logic of establishing a university during a genocide, how its Catholic identity functions in a Muslim society, and his enduring optimism for Christianity in Iraq.

What led you personally to invest your life in this endeavor?

In 2010, Bishop Warda had just been made archbishop, and I went to pay him a visit of respect, asking if there was anything I could do to help. “Yes, in fact,” he said. “You Americans have made a big mess here, and you could stay and help me. I have 3,000 displaced families here from the south, they need help, and no one is helping us with them. We don’t have jobs for them, and there’s a whole range of things I would like to do.”

I assisted on and off on a pro-bono basis for the next four years, but by 2014 the situation looked really desperate. ISIS was maybe 30 miles away from Erbil. But in a visit just after Christmas, I sat down with the bishop and the priests who told me, “We are going to stay. Will you be with us here, and help us?”

Honestly, I was skeptical. But after some deep thinking, I tried to determine the right thing to do and if there was a calling in this for me.

Tell us more about that calling.

Being an international transactions lawyer involved a fair amount of bare knuckles litigation. And not a lot of it, quite frankly, was fulfilling…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

There’s No One Christian View on Kurds and Turks

Turkish Christians
(Image: Lefteris Pitarakis / AP. Clergy representing minority communities in Turkey gathered Sunday in a monastery in southeastern Turkey to pray for Turkish soldiers fighting in the cross-border operation against Syrian Kurdish fighters.)

This article was first published at Christianity Today on October 24.

As reports circulated that Turkey had violated its five-day pause in operations against the Kurds on the Syrian border, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric intensified. If Kurdish fighters did not withdraw from their positions, as agreed between Erdogan and President Donald Trump, Turkey would “crush their heads.”

The front now appears quiet as Turkey has secured its “safe zone” in cooperation with Russia.

In America, as reported in the press, Christian opinion has been almost universal in its condemnation. But the Christian landscape in the Middle East, home to the oldest and some of the most enduring persecuted traditions in the faith, offers a complex array of responses.

CT has previously covered anti-Turkish sentiment from the Syriac, Assyrian, and Protestant communities of the region.

But there is an underreported—and contested—pro-Turkey and anti-Kurdish contingent as well.

Arameans:

“President Trump is right on Syria!” stated Johny Messo, president of the World Council of Arameans, in a press release. “These ‘heroes’ have oppressed vulnerable Arameans, taken their innocent lives, Kurdified their lands, and still use a tiny Christian group as their mouthpiece.”

The Arameans, though an ancient expression of Christianity, represent a 20th-century revival of identity tied to the ancient biblical land of Aram. Communities exist in Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere in the region, and have been recognized by Israel.

While the West has rallied behind the democratic Syrian enclave that permits religious freedom, Messo says what it commonly called Kurdistan is actually…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Personal

Distributing Aid to Iraqi Christians

Zalal 7

Five days ago Iraqi Christians were displaced from their city – again. As Fox News reported, they had only recently returned to Teleskof following its liberation from ISIS.

Here are pictures from those trying to help.

The recent Kurdish referendum effort led the Iraqi government to reclaim disputed land held by the Peshmerga forces. Christians were caught in the crossfire, and my Christianity Today story has some of the details.

It also features Ashty Bahro, the head of Zalal Life Civil Society Foundation, and former head of the Evangelical Alliance of Kurdistan.

On the day the refugees fled to nearby al-Qosh, his organization was there to distribute 300 parcels of food and water.

The following pictures were supplied by Zalal Life.

Zalal 8
The license plate reads: Dohuk, Iraq. Bahro is a pastor in Dohuk, 25 miles to the northwest of al-Qosh.
Zalal 1
Bahro described the area as mountainous, with the journey taking about 40 minutes.
Zalal 2
Refugees gathered at the local St. Qarbakh church. Al-Qosh is roughly 30 miles north of Mosul and is home to what is believed to be the burial place of the prophet Nahum, who preached against the Assyrian Empire of his day.
Zalal 4
Containing cheese, meat, tuna, beans, and other foot items.
Zalal 5
Boxes filled with bread. Iraqi bread is traditionally flat and round, shaped similarly to a pizza.

Zalal 6

There is always a cost to war. There are always real people on both sides of charity.

Pictures help us visualize what we are too often able to overlook: Faces.

You don’t have to do anything. In most cases you can’t. Some are chosen to suffer, others are able to help.

Just remember the dignity of all.

UPDATE:

On October 30, Zalal Life was able to return and complement the emergency food supplies with 300 mattresses and blankets. Bahro specifically thanks Steadfast Global and L4L.

Zalal 10
It is not uncommon in the Middle East to see all sorts of vehicles piled high with supplies.
Zalal 11
I liked this picture because it shows a little more of the neighborhood near the church. Looks nice – that doesn’t always come through in refugee situations.
Zalal 13
And this one: Just because kids are so frequently cute.

 

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Excerpts

Redraw the Map: A Christian Call for Middle East Peace

Map of New Middle East

This article was published at Providence, on March 4, 2016.

The carnage is so severe, the atrocities so barbaric, and the impasse so intractable. Even when violence targets fellow Christians and their ancient communities, the morass of the Middle East can silence any moral response. Believers are tempted to throw up their hands in despair, for any proposed solution creates further uncomfortable complications.

If America stands with Assad in Syria we back his barrel bombs. If we side with the rebels we empower Islamism. If we stay neutral the killing continues, as friend and foe alike meddle on behalf of their favorite proxy. If we bomb only the Islamic State the core political issues remain. If we commit ground troops the specter of Saddam looms over all. Propaganda shrouds analysis in conspiracy, and regardless of action refugees pour out of a tinderbox ready to spark further war.

It is no wonder Christians are paralyzed to suggest anything.

Into the morass wades Terry Ascott, desperately seeking a way forward. And his solution tramples over one of the region’s most sacred cows, one only the Islamic State has dared address: Redraw the map.

Terry Ascott is the founder and CEO of the Arabic Christian satellite network SAT-7, though he is clear these remarks are personal in nature, unrelated to the work of the SAT-7, which I have written about in the past such as here and here.

I have also previously summarized an article from the London Review of Books that suggests the United States has conspired to create exactly the situation Ascott is calling for.

The article in Providence touches on the fact that a few others have suggested a solution in political division, but in purpose reflects Ascott’s Christian heart and rationale to stop the bloodshed. It also reflects his pessimism that the region can do this on its own.

Please click here to read the full article, and brainstorm with him.

 

 

 

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Christian TV Helps ISIS Survivors

This article was published at Christianity Today on January 7, 2016.

SAT-7 Myriam and Sandra
Myriam (L) and her friend Sandra reunite at school (via SAT-7)

Last spring, a 10-year-old Christian girl famously forgave ISIS for driving her family from their home in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Myriam’s video interview with Christian broadcaster SAT-7 went viral, witnessed by more than 3 million people on television and social media.

When Myriam fled from ISIS, so did her friend Sandra. Sandra’s family first took refuge in Lebanon, while Myriam’s family headed for Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq. Eventually, both families settled into a refugee camp at Mar Elias Catholic Church in Erbil.

Myriam previously told SAT-7 she had three wishes. The first: For her message of forgiveness to reach the world.

Now her second and third wishes have also been fulfilled. She has returned to school, and Sandra has joined her. She now shares a desk with her childhood friend.

“I can’t describe the joy that I felt,” Myriam told SAT-7.

But the joy of school is unknown to most of the approximately 3.5 million internally displaced children of Syria and Iraq. World Vision estimates that 2.5 million Syrian children—including both the internally displaced and refugees—are not attending school.

Terry Ascott, CEO of SAT-7, told CT that without school, money, or dignity, these children are at great risk.

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Personal

Other Stories from Kurdistan

The situation for refugees in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq is dire. I was pleased to be able to convey this perspective in a recent article for Lapido Media, highlighting the relief efforts of a local Cairo church, Kasr el-Dobara.

But there are other interesting stories to be told, more than could be honored in a reasonable word limit. Here then are a few other anecdotes that had to be cut in the editing:

KD Christian refugee

Coordinated with US airstrikes, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have begun to reclaim villages overrun by ISIS. But many displaced Christians in Erbil, the Kurdish Iraqi city which has received hundreds of thousands of refugees, have little confidence to return.

‘I don’t want to go back to the same neighbors who betrayed me,’ a roughly 60 year old blind man from Nineveh told Revd. Fawzi Khalil. ‘They surrendered me to the terrorists.’

Khalil is the director of relief ministries at Kasr el-Dobara Church in Cairo, Egypt, and is part of the church’s efforts to deliver much needed aid. He has spoken to dozens of individuals with similar stories; names and faces begin to blend together.

The man in the photo above is the blind man, supplied by Rev. Khalil. It is amazing to have met so many with such terrible stories.

KD Erbil refugees

Khalil explained that the majority Chaldean Catholic Church of Ankawa has done an excellent job of caring for Christian refugees. Erbil’s population includes roughly 160,000 Christians, and many have taken in their religious brethren.

As a consequence Erbil’s churches are packed, and the Mar Eliya refugee camp is located on the grounds of the church-run school. Nearby Mar Yousef camp is in a church itself, and hosts mostly Muslims and Yazidis.

The photo above, also from Khalil, pictures what these campgrounds are like. People and their scant belongings sit around idly. I was surprised by how green the area is. But from another photo, not all refugees are so fortunate:

SAT7 refugee camp

This photo is from SAT-7, whose Ehab el-Kharrat was quoted extensively in the original article. Many campgrounds are located in the desert, and according to Eva Boutros, who was also interviewed, many have inadequate water supplies. Dozens of children gathered around a sole faucet, she witnessed, trying to get clean.

But Boutros also told a story of other children, who enjoyed with her relief team a special break from the agony of refugee life:

One of the Christian refugees is named Soha. Age 22, she graduated from university and was looking forward to her new job in Mosul before the ISIS onslaught. Now she must care for her brother’s three children who have been separated from their mother.

‘Now, all I have is a mattress, a donated plate of food, and two pairs of clothing,’ she told Eva Boutros. ‘This is the end of my youth.’

Boutros is the director of volunteer ministry for Kasr el-Dobara, but accompanied a joint Orthodox-Catholic-Protestant team organized by the Chaldean Church in Heliopolis, Cairo.

This team brought tents, medical supplies, blankets, and children’s underwear, all donated by Egyptian companies.

But Boutros recognized many of the refugees needed something more, and took 280 young women, including Soha, shopping at the local mall.

‘It was fun for us, and fun for them,’ she said, describing a moment of happiness amid a desperate situation.

Perhaps her woman’s touch gives her greater memory for personal detail, as opposed to Khalil. But she praises a different source.

‘I remember each person, their face and their story,’ she said. ‘The Lord sent us to tell them, we are suffering with you.

‘They need you to hug them, stay with them, and listen, listen, listen.’ Kasr el-Dobara’s team included a professional psychiatrist, who spent hours counseling women and children in their trauma. Childcare specialists did their best to entertain the kids each evening.

Finally, here is an amateur video made by the Kasr el-Dobara team, showing their team in action and giving thanks to those who have donated.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Facing ISIS, Middle Eastern Evangelicals Exchange Strategies

Christian refugees from Mosul find a home in Merga Souva Iraq. -- Gail Orenstein / AP Images
Christian refugees from Mosul find a home in Merga Souva Iraq. — Gail Orenstein / AP Images

From my article at Christianity Today, published October 14, 2014:

“God is allowing ISIS to expose Islam,” said Khalil’s fellow pastor, Atef Samy. “They are its true face, showing what Islam is like whenever it comes to power.”

But the savagery of ISIS, which has overwhelmed Kurdistan with more than 850,000 refugees, has prompted other Middle Eastern Christians to embrace their Muslim neighbors. This theme was heard often from members of the Fellowship of Middle Eastern Evangelical Churches (FMEEC), who met in Cairo last month for a conference on the dwindling Christian presence in the region.

“We must be a voice for Islam,” said Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. “We must not allow the West to see ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, or others like them as the face of Islam.”

Others were more reflective of the diversity among both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The article opens with a brief description of an evangelical relief trip to help refugees in Kurdistan, which I also wrote about here. It also describes cooperation attempts in the Egyptian Family House, uniting Muslims and Christians, which I hope to profile in a few days. There are other strategies described by those who attended a recent conference in Cairo, whose opinions on US-led military action I wrote about here.

But please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

 

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Church Relief Effort Highlights ‘1000s Left on Streets’ ahead of Iraqi Winter

Published September 23rd at Lapido Media:

Ehab el-Kharrat visiting refugee children in Erbil, Iraq (credit: SAT-7)
Ehab el-Kharrat visiting refugee children in Erbil, Iraq       (credit: SAT-7)

A former Egyptian member of parliament whose church is distributing aid to Iraqi refugees has spoken out about the gaps in humanitarian provision as the country heads into winter.

He expressed concern about underfunded UN campsites and thousands living on the streets.

Ehab el-Kharrat visited Erbil, a city in the Kurdistan region of Iraq that has attracted thousands of people fleeing conflict in the region.

His church, Kasr el-Dobara church in Cairo, works among relief heavyweights such as the UNHCR, Caritas, and Samaritan’s Purse.

It has sent a delegation to Iraq every ten days for the past two months, trying to stem the humanitarian tide. The congregation, which is made up of the middle and upper classes, has donated $180,000 to the relief effort with a further $120,000 from a fundraising trip to the United States.

So far it has distributed 2,500 mattresses with pillows and blankets, and it supports a network of 2,200 families that receive a food basket every two weeks.

This network is run in coordination with churches of Ankawa, a Christian neighborhood in Erbil. Ninety per cent of recipients are non-Christian – either Sunni Muslims also fleeing Islamic State, or else from the Yazidi minority.

Revd Fawzi Khalil is director of relief ministries at Kasr el-Dobara church.

He explained that the Chaldean Catholic Church of Ankawa has done an excellent job of caring for Christian refugees. Erbil’s population includes 160,000 Christians, and many have taken in fellow Christians.

As a consequence Erbil’s church grouds are packed. The Mar Eliya refugee camp is located on the grounds of the church-run school. Nearby Mar Yousef camp is in the church itself and hosts mostly Muslims and Yazidis.

Kharrat, a founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, described a pecking order of beneficiaries. After refugees living in camps in church grounds, the next most fortunate group is those taken in by Kurdish families, he said, followed by those in unfinished buildings but under the sponsorship of church groups. Kasr el-Dobara’s efforts are toward this group, primarily.

Underfunded

But thousands of Iraqis remain on the streets and in underfunded UN campsites in the desert. Kharrat noticed most tents were recycled from an earlier Syrian refugee camp, and are of deteriorating quality.

Erbil has a permanent population of 1.5m people, and UN figures show there are 1.8m displaced Iraqis. But according to UN-Iraq, the three established UN camps can host only eight per cent of the refugees.

Local families and churches take in the rest, but thousands sleep on the streets, under bridges, or in partially completed buildings, said Khalil.

In speaking to Kurdish officials, he related their complaint that under the Maliki government, Baghdad ‘failed’ to send Erbil its constitutionally guaranteed share of the budget. The new government, formed on 8 September, has promised to do so ‘but not yet delivered’, he said.

This has left the Kurdish regional government in a bind, as the UNHCR is a refugee agency, but those fleeing are technically considered internally displaced persons. With no agency possessing a clear mandate, the UN looks toward the government to lead.

Even so, UN documents detail over 346,000 people who have been reached to some degree, with Saudi Arabia touted as a particularly generous donor.

Grateful

But this effort has not impressed the Kurds, says Kharrat.

‘Kurds are grateful to the US in particular and the West in general,’ he said, ‘but are wondering why the Arabs are so slow – in both humanitarian and military aid.’

Khalil and Kharrat stated they were busy with their own work in the area but neither recalled seeing any Muslim groups among the refugees.

Islamic Relief, however, has been working in the Anbar province to the west of Baghdad. It also distributed food parcels to 1,500 Christian families displaced in Nineveh.

According to Eva Boutros, director of volunteer ministry for Kasr el-Dobara, the fact that Egyptian Christians have been present has made an impression on many.

‘Muslims and Yazidis appreciate very much that they are cared for,’ she said. ‘They know it is the church that is doing this in Iraq.’

But whether Christians, Muslims, or the UN, no one is doing enough. By December if no solution is found, the already tragic situation will turn catastrophic.

‘Hundreds of thousands are unprepared for winter,’ Kharrat said, anticipating average lows of three degrees Celsius.

‘Conditions are horrible. They survived the summer – the heat did not kill, but the freezing snow might.’