By Bishop Edward J. Burns
For the Juneau EMPIRE – August 17, 2014

Earlier this week, the Vatican called on Muslim leaders to speak out against the “barbaric” and “unspeakable criminal acts” of the Islamic State in Iraq. The statement said, “The plight of Christians, Yezidis and other religious and ethnic communities that are numeric minorities in Iraq demands a clear and courageous stance on the part of religious leaders, especially Muslims, those engaged in interfaith dialogue and everyone of good will.”

Children flee violence in northern Iraq
Children flee violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar, Iraq, Aug. 10. Islamic State militants have killed at least 500 Yezidi ethnic minorities, an Iraqi human rights minister said. (CNS photo/Rodi Said, Reuters)

The Vatican statement called on “followers of all religions and men and women of good will” to “unambiguously denounce and condemn” the actions of the Islamic State which “bring shame on humanity”. The statement singled out for condemnation massacres of people based on their religion, the barbaric practice of beheading and crucifixion, forced expulsions of thousands of people, including children, elderly, pregnant women and the sick, the abduction of Christian and Yezidi girls and women as “spoils of war” and the destruction and desecration of churches and other places of worship.

This is in response to the wave of violent persecution unleashed on Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq. This past week an already terrible situation became intolerable as jihadi fighters overran the Christian villages and towns of the Ninevah plain. Terrified that they would be forced to convert to Islam or be killed, an estimated 150,000 Iraqi Christians abandoned their homes and possessions and fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. There are credible reports that all of the churches in these largely Christian communities have been desecrated and burnt or demolished. This follows the brutal expulsion less than a month ago of the Christians and other religious minorities of the city of Mosul and the confiscation and in some cases, destruction of churches and other houses of worship in the city by the so-called Islamic State.

In a region of northern Iraq near the Syrian border, an estimated 40,000-50,000 Yezidis, a smaller but even more vulnerable minority religious community fled the jihadist offensive and sought refuge in the waterless desert mountains where children and old people began dying of hunger and thirst. Fighters of the Islamic State are particularly harsh toward Yezidis, who they consider to be devil worshippers, and demand they convert to Islam or be killed. In reality, these unfortunate people are members of an ancient Zoroastrian sect with Jewish, Christian and Islamic influences.
Close to one hundred Yezidis including children were reportedly killed when their main village of Sinjar was overrun last Thursday. Captured Yezidi women and girls have reportedly been forced to “marry” their captors. The jihadist fighters of the Islamic State advance on the beleaguered Yazidis in the mountains and are threatening to kill them.
To stave off a massacre and a humanitarian disaster, the United States has begun airdropping food and water to the besieged Yazidis and attacking the heavy weapons and fighters of the Islamic States from the air. Kurdish forces have reportedly created an escape corridor through Syria that has allowed some Yazidis to find shelter and safety but others continue to remain trapped and surrounded.

Iraqi Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant leaders have sought to draw the attention of the world to the plight of Christians, Yezidis and other persecuted religious minorities. They are pleading with both their own government and the international community to protect their people from further violence and asking for humanitarian assistance for those who have been made refugees.

What can we do to help here in far-away Juneau? Let me suggest four concrete actions that all of us can take:

• Contact the President and our Alaska delegation in Congress. Urge that our government act in cooperation with the international community to prevent what the United Nations characterized as the threat of “potential genocide”.

• Break the silence about the persecution of Christians in Iraq and in other parts of the Middle East.

• Generously donate to the various humanitarian groups on the ground in Northern Iraq, such as Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Near Eastern Relief Association and Aid to the Church in Need that are helping to provide Iraqi Christian, Yezidi and other refugees from persecution with the food, water and shelter they so desperately need.

• Pray. In response to the appeals of leaders of the Chaldean Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox and other Iraqi Churches for solidarity and prayer, the US Catholic Bishops have asked Catholics throughout the United States to pray for peace in Iraq and for the lives, safety and welfare of Iraqi Christians and all those who are persecuted. Please find time today to join us in praying this prayer for peace in Iraq, composed by Archbishop Raphael Sako, in your own church or place of worship, at home with your family or individually.

Lord, the plight of Iraq is desperate and the suffering of Christians is severe and frightening. Therefore, we ask you Lord to spare their lives, and to grant them patience and courage to continue their witness to Christian values with trust and hope.

Lord, peace is the foundation of life; grant the people of Iraq the peace and stability that will enable them to live with each other without fear and anxiety, and with dignity and joy.

Glory be to you forever.
Amen.