Displaced Iraqis need food, shelter
More than 4 million people have been displaced by the war in Iraq, including two million refugees now seeking safety in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. And tens of thousands — many of them Christian — are fleeing to Beirut, living in temporary housing while awaiting safe passage to yet-unknown places throughout in the world.
So far, the U.S. government has said that only 7,000 will be received into the United States. To date, fewer than 1,000 have been processed.
"There are sometimes 10 people to a room. They sleep in shifts," reports Peter Makari, the UCC/Disciples' area executive for the Middle East, who met with refugees in Beirut during a late October trip with the Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
"They know their situation is temporary, but they don't know how long temporary is," Makari says. "They know that return to Iraq is highly unlikely."
Makari returned to the United States urging UCC leaders and churches to underscore the need for assistance. His report triggered the UCC's Collegium of Officers to ask churches and members to contribute at least $100,000 in emergency aid before Jan. 6, which is Orthodox Christmas Eve, the night when most Iraqi Christians will celebrate Christ's birth. For westerners, it's the day of Epiphany.
The UCC is working with one of the denomination's Synod-affirmed partners in the region, the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), which is preparing and distributing aid packages through Action by Churches Together. Church World Service is helping resettle 700 persons in the United States, while simultaneously urging the U.S. government to receive far more refugees.
The MECC includes 28 member churches, representing 14 to 16 million Christians in the Middle East. It has been engaged in relief work for Iraqis since the Gulf War in the early 1990s and the sanctions period that followed.
"Forty dollars will feed a family of four for two weeks," Makari says. "Some of the Muslims who have received [the aid packets with the MECC logo] have said, 'Look at what the church is doing for us.'" Makari says. "There's a sense of appreciation for the church among Muslims."
Given that 15 to 20 percent of Iraq's population has been uprooted, the situation is severe. Money is needed for shelter, food, schooling and health care.
"But the biggest need is to live in dignity, especially after many had lived a relatively good life and now have nothing," Makari says. "These people left everything they had, just with the clothes they had on their backs."
While in Beirut, Makari met with three Iraqi women — one who had been in Lebanon for two months, one for three years, and one who was displaced by the Gulf War nearly 10 years ago.
"They are Christian women, and they described the sectarian nature of the conflict in Iraq," Makari says. "They were in tears when they spoke to us about what their futures may hold, because they just don't know. They described how uncertain it is for the Christian refugees who were fleeing Iraq."
"We were told in no uncertain terms, the problems in Iraq were due to the U.S. invasion and not the Muslim community, although sectarian strife has increased dramatically because of the continued U.S. presence," he says.
Out of Iraq's population of 25 million, an estimated 650,000 to 1 million are Christian.
"It's impossible to know the number of Christian in Iraq now," he says, "but we know they have been leaving in staggering numbers."
Makari believes it's especially important for U.S. Christians to respond to the Iraq refugee crisis.
"There was an initial response from the international community to help refugees but that's really lagged," he says. "The U.S. government is the cause of this, and we in the U.S. church certainly care for others in the world. Politics aside, this is what the church is all about."
Contributions to the UCC's "$100,000 for Peace" Iraq Refugee Appeal will support emergency aid and refugee resettlement. Gifts can be made online at www.ucc.org/100Kforpeace.