As various nations, paramilitary groups, and coalitions continue their roles in the intractable war against ISIS, a growing humanitarian crisis is further jeopardizing regional stability and spurring relief nonprofits – both Christian and secular – into action to help persecuted minorities.
Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, an estimated 9 million people have been displaced as a result of the conflict (3 million making it to neighboring countries Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and 6 million displaced inside Syria). Few nations outside of the Middle East have extended a helping hand. Chief among those that have is Sweden, which has resettled some 30,000 refugees. Fellow EU member Bulgaria has also established camps for displaced Syrians, but is too cash-strapped to offer optimal services.
Refugees’ existence is precarious, dangerous, and divisive; often, host communities become hostile to innocent civilians fleering destruction at home, as recent riots and anti-refugee violence in Turkey show. Syrians have to cross borders on foot, covering immense distances with few resources. The crisis is also tearing apart families, with women and children comprising 75 percent of inhabitants in Turkish refugee camps. Men are more likely to stay behind to protect property or to take up arms in the conflict.
ISIS’ advance through Iraq and Syria has negatively impacted virtually all ethno-religious groups, as their intolerant and apocalyptic brand of theocratic politics ravages cities and attracts often indiscriminate military responses from the Syrian and Iraqi governments. Certain minorities, however, are singled out and persecuted, including Yazidis and Christians.
Yazidis are a Iraqi minority that practices Yazidism, a syncretic faith descendent from ancient Zoroastrianism and other Mesopotamian religions. ISIS – which views the sect as “devil worshippers” – infamously isolated 40,000 Yazidis on a mountain in August 2014, threatening them with starvation or dehydration if they stayed, and slaughter if they fled. The impasse was broken following military strikes led by the United States.
Christians also face virulent hatred and intolerance under the Islamic pseudo-state. ISIS gives Christians the option to either convert to Islam or be executed as heathens. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled their homes as a result. The country’s largest Christian cities – including Qaraqosh, Tel Askof, Tel Keif, and Qaramless – emptied almost completely before falling to militant jihadists.
The country’s Christian leaders are not mincing words about the onslaught, calling ISIS’ actions genocidal. Patriarch Louis Sako, leader of the Chaldean Catholic church described how 100,000 Christians were forced to flee the Nineveh province:
They fled their villages and houses [with] nothing but … the clothes on their backs …Christians are walking on foot in Iraq’s searing summer heat towards the Kurdish cities of Irbil, Duhok and Soulaymiyia, the sick, the elderly, infants and pregnant women among them. They are facing a human catastrophe and risk a real genocide.
Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, commented on what he sees as government responsibility for alleviating these conditions: “It is extremely important that aid efforts are supported and that those who have been displaced are able to find safety.”
While governments organize resources and begin formulating partnerships with various relief organizations, a number of nonprofits have already stepped up, rolling out fundraising appeals in the name of persecuted refugees. The Cradle of Christianity Fund (CCF) is using preexisting networks in the region to distribute basic necessities for Christians who fled with nothing. In part aided by the Jordanian government, the CCF focused later 20014 on providing refugees with resources to withstand the cold desert winter.
The Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organization is using donations to provide medical care for Christians displaced by the conflict. The International Orthodox Christian Charities is going even a step further, providing educational materials and remedial classes to refugees, as well as shelter and temporary employment.
Secular organizations are making a difference as well. The International Rescue Committee is providing medical and social services in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. Mercy Corps is distributing immediate needs – including food and clean drinking water – to displaced families.
These efforts are a tremendous start, but the severity of the problem warrants a unified, comprehensive approach that marries the UN, governments, and nonprofit groups into an effective and well-organized unit. The scope is massive – so too must the cooperation, trust, fundraising efforts, and generosity be if positive change for persecuted minorities is to happen.