A World Council of Churches (WCC) team met last week with religious leaders and community members in northern Iraq to assess the situation of heightened violence and displacement due to attacks by militants of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS).
The group came back deeply affected by the depth, intensity and suddenness of the violence that has left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more uprooted from their homes and communities. It was clear that urgent humanitarian needs were not yet met.
As a result the WCC is appealing to its 345 member churches around the world to respond immediately to this humanitarian crisis through partners such as the ACT Alliance and other responsible aid agencies.
Additionally, “the international community must exercise its responsibility to protect these extremely vulnerable people, including Christians and members of other religious communities in the region,” said Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the WCC on Thursday 4 September from the WCC offices in Geneva, Switzerland.
“This is a situation where all responsible religious and community leaders should stand together to condemn this brutality and address this situation,” Tveit said. “Let us continue to pray for justice and peace and ask what we can do.”
“We are deeply concerned about our Christian sisters and brothers in Iraq as well as other religious communities,” Tveit said. “It was therefore important the WCC staff made this solidarity visit with churches and other religious leaders at this time.”
According to the leader of the WCC visit, Peter Prove, director of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), “All religious groups other than those which 'Islamic State' claims to represent have been targeted by IS, including other Muslim groups, as well as Christians and Yazidis. The Yazidis have been treated with a special degree of brutality, in what is tantamount to a genocidal campaign.”
Prove reported that according to local aid agencies less than 20% of the internally displaced people (IDP) are receiving the minimum in adequate emergency support. In response to these figures, Tveit said, the humanitarian response must be increased rapidly as colder weather is coming to the region and a large number of people who have fled the violence remain without adequate aid.
At the same time, Tveit said “the Iraqi government has a responsibility to protect its citizens and if they cannot do that then the international community must step in to assure the safety and security of people who have been brutally forced away from their homes.”
“The application of international military force in the region, if any, should be undertaken under a mandate from the United Nations Security Council,” he said.
“Given the recent history of international military interventions in the region and especially the tragic impacts on the people and society of Iraq in recent years, the reasons for extreme caution in the application of such force are all too obvious.”
By some estimates, more than 600,000 people have been displaced by the latest attacks, adding to the vast numbers already displaced in earlier violence.
The Kurdistan regional government is bearing a heavy burden, but has demonstrated an exceptional humanitarian response in providing refuge and support to the displaced people now in the Kurdistan region, Prove said.
Almost every local church in the Kurdistan region is hosting large IDP communities, in churches, church buildings, grounds and other properties. The ACT Alliance members are becoming engaged in the region, directly and through local aid agency partners like Christian Aid Program – Nohadra Iraq (CAPNI) and REACH.
Of particular concern, Prove said, was the approach of winter, and with most IDPs having fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs. He said there is an urgent need to radically increase support for the international humanitarian response.
Tveit said the WCC thanks those member churches and specialized ministries who are already responding, and calls on all member churches and a larger number of ACT Alliance members to become engaged in response to all those suffering as a result of this violence.
The team that visited Iraq included Carla Khijoyan, a WCC staff member.
Churches ask Human Rights Council to support religious minority communities in Iraq (WCC news release of 2 September 2014)