[Episcopal News Service] Every week in north Paris, a few hundred Iraqi Christians gather for worship. It’s a bittersweet reunion for them. Their lives have been spared, but the events of the past 10 years have forced them into exile. Many have lost close family and friends in the bloodshed of the Iraq War and the resulting rise in terrorism.
“There are about a million Iraqi Christians who’ve left Iraq, and 1,300 of them came to France,” said Bishop Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. “It’s a drop in the ocean, but it’s 1,300 unique, innocent lives that are sacred to God. How can you say no to that? If you can do something, you should do something.”
In 2007, with Iraqi Christians facing increasing persecution as a result of their faith, Whalon and Iraqi businessman Elish Yako set up Association d’Entraide aux Minorités d’Orient (Association to Support Eastern Minorities) to help the French government identify candidates eligible for refuge. The association also has assisted the refugees with their integration and administrative issues.
“The Vatican’s official position is that Christians should stay in the Middle East and I totally agree with that; absolutely they should stay there,” said Whalon. “But they can’t stay there if they’re dead.”
Many of the refugees are members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, which dates back to the first century, when the region was known as Babylon. They worship partly in Arabic and partly in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.
“For them,” Yako said, “the most important thing is their freedom … and to practice their religion without being afraid of terrorists and [of someone] kidnapping their children.”
Yako stays in regular contact with every family the association has helped to resettle.
One family of four – mother, father, son and daughter – lives about 18 miles south of Paris. They moved to France in 2009 after receiving repeated death threats. The children told Episcopal News Service that, although the first couple of years were difficult because it’s a new life for them, they are happy finally to practice their religion freely and to be proud of it.
The son, Samir, 26, spoke about how his dad’s cousin and five of his own friends were killed in terrorist explosions. “You know, we would be sad,” he said. “But we would say, like, ‘Yeah, OK, it’s Iraq,’ you know? ‘It’s Iraq. It’s normal.’”
While visiting the family recently, Whalon said: “These people ought still to be in Iraq. You have a young lady here who wants to be a surgeon. Had she been able to stay and study normally, she would be well on her way to being a surgeon. Now she has to recycle herself in France.
“A lot of them still own homes. They never wanted to leave them. They lease them out; they expect to return,” Whalon added. “Of course, today the situation is impossible. So of course we want Christians to stay [in Iraq], but we want them to live.”
“This family wouldn’t be here, they wouldn’t be on earth, if they hadn’t been rescued.”
Unfortunately for Christians still in Iraq, the door of the French immigration services recently closed, Whalon said. As more and more Iraqi Christians face persecution and death in their homeland, there is little hope that France will offer them refuge.
“Our political refugee system in America and in France – both systems are completely saturated, and the personnel are overworked, and the system is over-budget. It costs a lot of money to accept people and give them new lives. So I’m really worried,” said Whalon.
“The ones that can live to tell the tale, they witness to the power of God. It says a great deal to be about the value of what we do and what we are in the world.”
— Matthew Davies is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.