WCC FEATURE: Iraqi refugees in Syria
World Council of Churches - Feature
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For immediate release - 05/05/2008 03:34:23 PM
IRAQI REFUGEES CRY OUT TO CHRISTIANS AROUND THE WORLD FOR SOLIDARITY
By Annegret Kapp (*)
"Although I had been threatened many times in Iraq, I did not want to
leave," says the Armenian Orthodox hairdresser Cayran.
"But then my shop was burnt and the car of my husband, who used to work as a
driver, was robbed. So we left everything behind and fled to Syria."
"Stories of lost loved ones, the sudden need to flee home and community and
the hardship of life as refugees need to be told.
And those who have the power to help end the tragedy of being a refugee need
At an April meeting of Iraqi Christian refugees and church representatives
from around the world at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All
the East in Damascus, Iraqi Christians who are now refugees in Syria spoke
as church members from the U.S., Germany, Lebanon, Pakistan and Sweden,
along with the general secretaries of the World Council of Churches and
Middle East Council of Churches listened.
What the church representatives heard were stories of incredible suffering
in Iraq and overflowing hospitality in Syria. They heard about the pain of
living in Iraq and eventually leaving.
They heard of the strain the influx of 1.5 million Iraqi refugees have
placed on the economy of Syria creating the need for jobs, safety and
security despite the unanswered questions of what next for the Iraqis.
The prices for food and housing are skyrocketing, and it is extremely hard
to find a well-paid job. "Even if there were no refugees, the economy would
have to create thousands of job opportunities a year in order to integrate
our young people who join the labour market," Samer Laham, director of
ecumenical relations at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, explained to the
visitors from abroad.
"Animals live better lives than human beings"
That evening many spoke of the trauma suffered by their children and the
insecurity of their future. Cayran said her son cannot speak normally since
he closely escaped a kidnapping.
"Animals live better lives than human beings in Iraq," said Samira, a Syrian
Orthodox refugee. "At least they have the freedom to move. We were even too
afraid to go to church because people were kidnapped from church."
One day, when she was still living in Iraq, Samira went shopping with her
daughter. "Three gunmen stopped us. They pushed my daughter around and asked
her why she was in the street without a veil. Since then, she did not want
to leave home and she dropped out of university."
Aram, who had been a member of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Baghdad,
said: "My wife and I knew some Christians who were killed. As our numbers
were on their mobile phones, their murderers used them to call and threaten
Aram also told about the mistrust that is poisoning communities in Iraq: "We
had some friends, who turned out to work for the Mahdi Army. We thought they
were friends, but they took our pictures in order to have us killed."
Incidents such as the publishing of the prophet Muhammad cartoons in Denmark
in 2005 benefit the extremists, who use them to justify their hidden agenda
to kick "non-believers" out of the country, Munir from the Calvinist
community in Baghdad is convinced.
"My family was threatened: either you leave within 15 minutes or we will
kill you," Munir described his own experience. He added that they did not
know how serious the threat was, so they went to his sister's apartment next
door and waited. Really an armed gang arrived. "They raped our wives, and
even my eighty-year-old mother was beaten." After Munir's brother-in-law,
who had been kidnapped, was freed, the family left "immediately, without
even taking any clothes with us," selling the apartment for a fourth of its
In exile, Christians turn to churches for help
But life in Syria is not easy, either, as the resources which refugees
managed to bring with them are soon used up, and jobs are hard to find.
"I have a brother and a sister outside the region," Munir said.
"We depend on them and are a burden on them. But they cannot afford to send
us money all the time."
A psychological burden for many families is the knowledge that any emergency
or illness will find them without protection.
Kwarin, a father of four, left his job with a security company in Baghdad to
join his family in exile and take care of his children. "My wife urgently
needs an operation," he said, "but I have no money to pay for it."
While the refugees are grateful to Syria and the churches there for
welcoming them, many feel let down by the international community.
Frustration prevails with regard to the Western embassies who have rejected
visa applications again and again.
"Do they want that parents go back to Iraq and get killed before they allow
the children to get out? Must our young women go back and be raped before
they are allowed out?" one man asked angrily.
Cries of "No!" or even "Never!", both in English and Arabic, filled the
room, as the question of whether they want to return to Iraq was put to the
refugees. "Of course I want to go back to my country," a young woman from
Basra explained. "But can you guarantee that I will not be killed? My
relatives went back and were killed in one night."
Rev. Dr Volker Faigle of the Evangelical Church in Germany thanked the men
and women who gave their testimonies to the WCC delegation for this clear
message. "We cannot bring airtickets or visas along," he acknowledged. "But
my church and the Roman Catholic Church in Germany will join hands and
approach the government, the parliament and the European institutions to
tell them what we have seen and heard. (...) When we return to our
countries, we will think of you, we will pray for you and we will act for
The concern felt by Syria's Christian communities for their sisters and
brothers in and from Iraq was tangible in all the encounters the WCC
delegation had with church leaders.
Patriarch Mor Ignatius Zakka of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who was himself
born in Iraq, told the ecumenical visitors about a priest of his church who
had been killed just one week earlier, after he conducted the Holy Mass. "We
do not want Iraq to be emptied of Christians but if they are in danger
there, how could we tell them to stay?" asked the patriarch.
Many Christian refugees experienced that in Iraq belonging to a religious
minority is dangerous. "Christians and other minorities are paying the price
of the Iraq war," said Samer Laham, "because they are suspected of being
traitors and of helping the allied forces - as if they were not an original
part of the social fabric and had not shared the bread with their Muslim
brothers since centuries. "
So when they arrive in the host country, Christians put most trust and
expectations for help on the churches. Denominational boundaries, on the
other hand, are easily overcome. "Our church is an open house for Iraqi
either to hold their own services or to join ours, said the Melkite Greek
Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III. He added that his patriarchate works hand
in hand with an Islamic centre to care for Iraqi refugees, whether they be
Christian or Muslim.
Pastor Boutros Zaour, of the Evangelical National Church, said "it is
Syria's destiny to be hospitable to refugees, ever since the Armenians fled
here from the persecutions they suffered in the Ottoman Empire."
"The personal stories the delegation heard were heartwrenching,"
said Clare Chapman, deputy general secretary of the National Council of
Churches USA, at the end of the visit. "We must pray for the Iraqi refugees
and work together as member churches of the WCC and as citizens of our home
countries, to address the conditions they daily endure. We must take our
responsibility seriously, as people of faith, to do whatever we can to
suppothem as they try to rebuild the lives they lost through no fault of
(*) Annegret Kapp, WCC web editor, is a member of the Evangelical Church in
More information on the WCC delegation's visit to Syria:
WCC member churches in Syria:
Members of the WCC delegation to Syria:
· Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, WCC general secretary · Mr Guirguis Saleh, Middle
East Council of Churches, general secretary · Ms Clare Chapman, National
Council of Churches USA, deputy general secretary · Bishop Samuel Azariah,
WCC executive committee member; Church of Pakistan · Bishop Nareg Alemezian,
WCC central committee member; Armenian Apostolic Church of Cilicia, Lebanon
· Rev. Dr Volker Faigle, Evangelical Church in Germany, representation to
the Federal Republic of Germany and to the European Union ·MrJames D.
Thomson, Global Ecumenical Network on Migration; National Council of
Churches Australia, Christian World Service, director of policy and advocacy
· Ms Kristina Hellqvist, Global Ecumenical Forum on Migration; Church of
Sweden, consultant on immigration and refugees · Ms Carla Khijoyan, WCC
Middle East desk · Ms Rima Barsoum, WCC programme executive for
Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect
WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing
credit is given to the author.
Additional information:Juan Michel,+41 22 791 6153 +41 79 507
The World Council of Churches promotes Christian unity in faith,
witness and service for a just and peaceful world. An ecumenical
fellowship of churches founded in 1948, today the WCC brings
together 347 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches
representing more than 560 million Christians in over 110
countries, and works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic
Church. The WCC general secretary is Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, from
the Methodist Church in Kenya. Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland.