This story of families fleeing to preserve their lives and their faith is happening again today as Christians are forced to flee Iraq. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick tells moving stories of his visits with Iraqi refugee families in the Middle East. With Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, he led a delegation from Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the International Catholic Migration Commission (their trip report is available at the Migration and Refugee Services Web site, www.usccb.org/mrs). As Cardinal McCarrick recounts: “Imagine you are a Christian family living in the Dora neighborhood outside of Baghdad. In the middle of the night there is pounding on your door. You are visited by armed gangs of Islamic extremists who threaten you and your family. You are told you have three options: give up your faith and convert to Islam, die or leave your homes, businesses, possessions and communities behind and flee. There is no doubt that you will be killed if you do not comply. Many have already been killed by similar death squads, and the Iraqi government seems unable or unwilling to protect you. Who among us would choose not to renounce our faith under such death threats? Yet these Christians do not renounce the faith. They do not convert. They choose to flee, to lose everything they own and risk their lives rather than lose their faith. These are the true modern-day martyrs.”
These Christians have been at home in Iraq for centuries. But of the 2,000 Christian families that once lived in the neighborhood of Dora alone, perhaps fewer than 300 remain. More than two million Iraqis have fled the country. Another two million have fled their homes but remain inside Iraq, unable to cross an international border. The Iraqi exodus now totals more than 15 percent of the population. Minority communities, like the Iraqi Christians, are particularly hard hit. More than 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq prior to the war. Fewer than 500,000 remain.
The two million Iraqis displaced within the country continue to fear daily violence. But the two million Iraqi refugees outside the country also live in permanent insecurity. Fleeing to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, they are not allowed to hold jobs, send their children to school or access health care. Fearing arrest and deportation, they often live in hiding, continually indoors to avoid hostile authorities. Without work they cannot pay rent, and most live in overcrowded conditions in poor housing, fearful of eviction. Host countries may have begrudgingly allowed temporary entry to refugees, but they do not want Iraqis to feel welcome or settle permanently in their countries. Host governments fear they cannot support the cost of vulnerable refugee populations, and they cannot risk the increased ethnic and religious conflicts that the quickly changing demographics may entail. They do not want the Iraqis to become the new Palestinians, refugees who stay permanently because they can never go back.
Returning home or settling permanently in the countries to which they have fled are not options for most Iraqi refugees. That leaves resettlement in a third country, like the United States, as the only choice. The bishops note that the tens of thousands of Iraqis who are working or have worked with the U.S. government and contractors are particularly at risk.
The United States has a generous record of refugee resettlement. In 1975 130,000 Vietnamese were airlifted directly to the United States; over time more than 760,000 Vietnamese refugees were admitted, and hundreds of thousands more from the rest of Indochina. Catholic parishes and dioceses sponsored many of these refugee families. We took responsibility for the fate of the refugees our actions helped create. Then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance explained the United States’ moral obligation to welcome refugees: “We are a nation of refugees. Most of us can trace our presence here to the turmoil or oppression of another time and another place. Our nation has been immeasurably enriched by this continuing process. We will not turn our backs on our traditions. We must meet the commitments we have made to other nations and to those who are suffering. In doing so, we will also be renewing our commitments to our ideals.” In the current Iraq war, the U.S. administration has amnesia about who caused the plight of more than two million Iraqi refugees. We face moral responsibilities to resettle more than the paltry 12,000 refugees the Bush administration has pledged to admit in the future. Our Catholic communities are again needed to help sponsor and resettle refugee families, to be ambassadors for Christ as the Ash Wednesday readings instruct. Will we welcome these modern day Holy Families?