As the U.S. bishops discussed immigration at their annual meeting this week, one Syriac Catholic bishop begged them not to forget Christian refugees in Syria and the Middle East.
“I need your presence, to feel you are with me,” Bishop Barnaba Yousif Benham Habash of the Syriac Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance of Newark pleaded with the bishops on Wednesday.
“Our people, they do need the presence of the Catholic Church,” he continued. “This is the task of the Catholic Church today, to be the Good Samaritan.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met for their annual spring general assembly in Indianapolis June 14-15. Bishop Habash spoke to his fellow bishops during an open floor session after a speech on the spirituality of immigration by Fr. Daniel G. Groody, C.S.C., a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame.
The Syrian conflict between the government forces of President Bashar al-Assad and his international allies Russia and Iran, and various rebel groups supported by Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and others, began in 2011 and continues to rage.
More than 12 million have been displaced by the conflict, including over five million refugees. An estimated 500,000 people have died in the war.
A new report by the Christian advocacy group Open Doors claims that 50 to 80 percent of Christians in Iraq and Syria have fled those countries since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, including half of Syria’s Christian population.
Many refugees are residing in nearby countries like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. The sheer number of refugees has already threatened to strain Lebanon, where over one in four persons is a refugee. Bishop Habash implored his brother bishops to remember the “neglected and forgotten” Christian refugees in these countries who are without hope.
The bishop noted that 2,000 homes in his native city, Bakhdida, have been burnt out. Christians driven from their homes are languishing in the desert, he said, and need “a Good Samaritan” to be present to them and not just give them materials.
“It’s good to give me some food, to give me some tent in this winter, in this desert, but it’s not the solution,” he insisted. The Church must make itself present to them, “not just you pass by and ‘good bye,’ like nothing happened,” he said.
Over 100 Iraqi nationals with criminal histories were picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and detained, to be deported to Iraq. Although some have reportedly filed emergency appeals, the Iraqis, many of whom are Chaldean Christians, could be sent back to a country with an active war zone, where Christians have been targeted for genocide.
Religious and civic leaders are trying to intervene on behalf of the Chaldeans, whose criminal records have reportedly been clean for at least ten years, sending letters to the Secretary of Homeland Security and hosting prayer vigils for the detainees. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit to halt the deportations.
Bishop Habash brought up the plight of these Iraqis in his plea to the bishops, and implored them to be the “conscience” of the country.
“They [ICE] took them from all over,” he said of the detainees, to deport them “to where? No houses, persecutions, only persecutions, fire is waiting for them, death is waiting for them. Why? Because we are Christian.”
“This nation should be Christian too!” he insisted. “If the Catholic Church wants to do and to protect, we have to be the conscience of this nation,” he said. “This nation is great, yes, it’s great, but it would be greater if we protected the innocent.”
Also at the assembly, Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, chair of the international justice and peace committee, delivered a presentation on international religious persecution.
He emphasized that amid widespread discrimination against Christians in Asia and the Middle East, the bishops in the U.S. must listen to the local Churches.
“Like a physician, our first duty is to do no harm,” he said of the U.S. bishops’ response to international Christian persecution. “We adopt strategies that complement the work of the local Church.”
“Solidarity visits are helpful in learning how to approach various situations. But sometimes solidarity visits are not advisable,” he said, because “at times it is dangerous for the local Church to be publicly associated with Church leaders from the United States, due to U.S. actions or policy.”
“We always follow the example of the Holy See,” he stated.
By Matt Hadro