A Christian family who fled from the violence in Mosu rests inb a sheloter in Irbil, Iraq.

CNS PHOTO | AHMED JADALLAH, REUTERSA Christian family who fled from the violence in Mosu rests inb a sheloter in Irbil, Iraq.

July 21, 2014
DEBORAH GYAPONG
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS

The Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) has put out an urgent plea to help Iraqi Christians targeted in a "brutal civil war."

"Everybody's affected, but Christians in particular because as a minority they are more vulnerable," said CNEWA Canada general secretary Carl Hutu in an interview from Jerusalem.

Hutu attended the annual gathering in Rome June 23-26 of agencies working with the Eastern Church that was organized by the Congregation of Eastern Churches.

The nearly two dozen agencies present learned Christians in Iraq have been warned to hide any religious symbols in their homes, businesses or on their persons; buildings identified as churches will be demolished, Hutu said.

Christians in Iraq have begun receiving letters telling them they will have to pay a special tax because they are living in Muslim territory, he said.

Extremists have already begun to impose their rules and regulations, he said. About 50,000 Iraqi Christians have fled to regions where they can be protected, while others are staying at their peril.

The extremists on the Sunni side are a coalition of different rebel groups, "one more radical than the other," that includes elements of Saddam Hussein's former army that was never dismantled, Hutu said.

NEW COALITIONS

Those army elements, which were always active, have joined forces, as have many local Sunni villages that were not well-treated by the Shiite government in Iraq, he said. The coalition includes rebel groups from Syria.

Iraqi president Nourish Al-Maliki is Shiite and heads a coalition government representing Shiites, Sunni and Kurds. But the Sunni felt ill-treated and allied themselves with forces hoping to oust the present government, Hutu said.

The rebel coalition calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham or ISIS is considered even more extreme than Al-Qaeda and is alienating other Sunni in the region such as those in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, he said.

Though observers have indicated "it was only a question of time this would happen, nobody could have predicted the strength and the magnitude," Hutu said.

NEXT TARGET?

What's not clear is whether there is any alignment with the Assad government forces in Syria. Many believe Syria is the next target for these extremists because they want to expand the size of their caliphate, he said.

The instability in Syria, however, has created a nest allowing this extremist group to grow, Hutu said, noting many of the rebels in both Syria and Iraq come from outside those countries.

Political instability "allows radical forces to express themselves and organize," he said, noting the countries where extremists are powerful have weak or non-existent governments. In countries with strong governments, these groups are arrested and jailed.

"Syria continues to be a nightmare," Hutu said, noting Syria's nuncio told the gathering in Rome people there are starving and the rebels and the government are using food as a way to harm their enemies.

The nuncio often can't get out of the enunciator, and "food distribution is very difficult because of the fighting," he said.

After three years, the fighting in Syria between the Assad government and forces loyal to it and rebel factions shows no sign of stopping.

As in Iraq, however, the Syrian rebel groups are not monolithic, but "fractured into hundreds of small groups fighting each other and many are not part of this ISIS group," Hutu said.

The fighting in Syria has become a regional battle, pitting Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar against Shiite Iran, which supports Hezbollah in Lebanon.

"There's petroleum in the middle of that," he noted.

The war in Syria is becoming a proxy war where many are using the fighting to establish regional domination, control of resources, and for an ideological and religious battleground, he said. Many of the rebels are being financed by outside forces.

WAR OF SHADOWS

Iraq is also becoming a proxy war where you don't see the enemy clearly, "you can only speculate," Hutu said.

CNEWA provides support all over the Middle East. In Syria, its program is geared entirely for refugees, with special attention to Christians, though Muslims in need of aid are also helped, he said.

But CNEWA's key focus is the survival of the Church in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, through providing food, housing, pastoral and psychological care, he said.

"We need to be very concerned for Christians leaving the region for good. This is our preoccupation."