Iraqi envoy to Vatican urges international help for Christians to return home

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ROME – Speaking outside the program at an event in Rome on migration, the newly arrived ambassador from Iraq to the Vatican said Wednesday that the country’s Christian community is at risk after violence perpetrated by ISIS, but people who fled now want to go back.

To do so, she said, they need help rebuilding the regions devastated by Islamic State’s reign of terror.

“Neither the government nor the Iraqi population at large want Christians to leave, because we know they are an essential part of our society,” said Amal Mussa Hussain Al-Rubaye, Ambassador to the Holy See. “Thank you for caring for our migrants, but from this place, I want to say to the world: if you want to help our migrants, do so by helping us rebuild Iraq.”

Visibly emotional, Al-Rubaye said hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who’ve been welcomed by Turkey, Kurdistan or Jordan are ready to go back, particularly to the Nineveh Plains, where an estimated 90 percent of the local Christian population lived before the rise of ISIS in 2014. The terrorists, she said, “[tried to] kill everyone who thought differently,” leaving people “no choice but to flee.”

“Christians who’ve fled are now ready to come back, but the areas where they live are completely destroyed,” she said. “And it takes time to rebuild houses.”

Since late 2018, the region is being rebuilt, mostly with foreign aid, provided either by the government of Hungary or private charitable organizations, such as the papal charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and the Knights of Columbus.

RELATED: To save Christianity on the Nineveh Plains, it’ll take security and jobs

According to the statistics provided by the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, formed by the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Catholic Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church together with ACN, an estimated 30,000 homes of Christian families were rebuilt by this privately funded initiative as of June 2019.

RELATED: Some Iraqi Christians out of patience to see how things shake out

For centuries the Nineveh Plains were considered a Christian stronghold in the Middle East, anchored by a series of traditionally Christian villages. Yet when ISIS arrived in 2014, things changed overnight, as more than 100,000 Christians were forced to flee and their villages were gutted, with churches, monasteries, businesses and private homes torched, torn down, or badly defaced.

Al-Rubaye’s words came during a Q&A section of an event organized by the Argentine embassy to the Holy See on Wednesday, on the eve of the United Nations’ World Refugee Day, marked annually on June 20th. Even though she wasn’t on schedule, her short remarks garnered  applause from the audience.

Also speaking at the event were Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See’s Secretariat of State; Andrea Tornielli, the Vatican’s media operation editorial director; Father Fabio Baggio, undersecretary of the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees section; Paola Alvarez, representative of the International Migration Organization; and Andrea Pecoraro, representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The several panels were moderated by Rogelio Pfirter, Argentine ambassador to the Holy See.

Both Pecoraro and Alvarez focused their talks on the current statistics on global migration, noting that today, there are close to 70 million people fleeing war and persecution, with 26 million living as refugees, 41 million as internally displaced persons (IDP), and close to 3.5 million as asylum seekers.

This information, Pecoraro said, does not take into consideration that in the past 12 months, an estimated four million people have fled Venezuela, only 10 percent of whom have requested asylum and hence have been included in the UN’s statistics.

As a comparison, he said that in 2009 there were some 40 million refugees, and that back in 1945, at the end of WWII, there were 50 million people who’d been forced to leave their homes.

Syria today has the largest numbers of both refugees and IDPs, with close to seven million, and Venezuela holds second place, way ahead of other countries such as Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar or Somalia.

Something else both remarked on is that often times, it’s the “developing countries” that are hosting the largest numbers of refugees, with Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda and Sudan heading these statistics. The only developed country to make the top ten he presented is Germany, hosting close to a million refugees.

“Most stay in neighboring countries, either because they want to go back once the conflict is over, or because they can’t afford to keep going,” Pecoraro said.

The right to request asylum, he said, is a “human right,” adding that when borders are closed to a person due to their “race, the color of their skin or their faith,” countries are discriminating and this has a negative impact both for the person seeking help and for the country that refuses to be welcoming.

The ambassador didn’t mention that earlier this month, Argentine President Mauricio Macri, generally pro-immigrant, announced he’s running for reelction and that his running mate is Miguel Angel Pichetto, once a close ally to Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who’s on the opposing ticket.

“I’m not xenophobic, nor do I speak about building a wall, but this year, 400,000 poor Latin Americans entered Argentina,” Pichetto said in Nov. 2018. “Is this sustainable over time?”

“We cannot be a country of stupid people, of fools, in such a complex world,” he said. “We cannot be the State that serves as benefactor of other countries.”

Gallagher, the papal representative, discussed short, mid and long-term actions that international actors and policy makers need to take to address the migrant question. On the first, he said that the current crisis cannot be ignored and that governments have the responsibility to help those fleeing their homes.

When it comes to mid-term solutions, he called for actions that avoid future crises making immigration influxes more manageable. “These have to be policies that make migration safer, recognizing it as an unavoidable reality that carries both challenges and opportunities,” he said.

About the long term solutions, Gallagher argued that immigration should be “a choice, not a need,” and urged countries to work on building policies that respect every person’s right to remain in their own countries, leading a dignified life “in the place they call home.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma


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