The Blog

Cardinal Point on Kurdistan's Humanitarian Crisis

The influx into Kurdistan of over 100,000 Christians from Mosul as part of a wider exodus last August sparked immediate action by Christians in the capital, Erbil and internationally.

The influx into Kurdistan of over 100,000 Christians from Mosul as part of a wider exodus last August sparked immediate action by Christians in the capital, Erbil and internationally.

The head of Britain's Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, recently visited Erbil to show solidarity. The Cardinal says: 'Just imagine if 125,000 internally displaced people turned up one morning. Imagine the family who lost everything except the clothes on their backs in two hours or the Archbishop of Mosul who lost his cathedral, many 8th, 9th and 10th century manuscripts and is now being sent pictures of Isis desecrating the cathedral.'

The Cardinal praised the Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Wardar who immediately turned his cathedral over to what the Christians in Erbil call 'our relatives.' Cardinal Nichols says that rather than seeing them as helpless, the 'effective generosity and industry' of priests and nuns seeks to 'help with dignity, discouraging dependency and helping get them back on their feet.'

The greatest loss is their individuality: literally, with the loss of identity papers as they had to up sticks at a moment's notice. In other camps, I have seen administrators treat displaced people as individuals and ensure all are involved in meeting needs which are very different for women, children and elderly people.

After the initial and chaotic effort to shelter people, the church in Erbil has now moved Christians, now numbering about 65,000, out of tents into caravans - container-like portacabins - or rented accommodation paid by the church.

The Cardinal praised Archbishop Wardar's 'tremendous foresight' in establishing an International Baccalaureate school and plans to found a university. Last year in Ankawa, I met a 17 year old Christian from Mosul who was just two exams away from finishing his degree. Perhaps he can get his life back in some order?

Cardinal Nichols said that 'the burning issue' is exiles returning to where they belong but it is a long and hard road. Isis forces leave devastated ruins seeded with booby traps which means they have to be cleansed too. 'The Christian community,' he says, is essential, 'not in a cultural, historical and archeological sense or because they have been there for 2,000 years but because they can bring core beliefs of forgiveness and reconciliation to building the social fabric and law and order all can trust.'

But liberation seems distant and exiles will be in Kurdistan for some time. The KRG, despite the failure of Baghdad to supply all its budget entitlements for over a year and falling oil revenues on which Iraq is totally dependent, has been very generous.

But the heavy strain of a 30% increase in Kurdistan's population has helped cool its once dynamic economy. KRG Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa recently told a Centre for Kurdish Progress roundtable in London that the number of trucks to and from Turkey has fallen from 3,000 to just 600 a day since last August, economic growth has halved, and poverty has soared. Isis sleeper cells piggybacking the exodus also menace Kurdistan's extraordinarily tight security. The Isis death cult last week killed two Turkish civilians near St Joseph's cathedral and by the American consulate.

Such attacks underline the urgency of political and military solutions in Iraq and Syria that allow people to return home where a major international effort to rebuild shattered villages and towns will then be necessary. In the meantime, Kurdistan deserves increased international solidarity as do churches whose efforts have been clearly highlighted by Cardinal Nichols.