The bishop coordinating a massive relief operation for Iraqi Christians fleeing to Syria has thanked leading Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for its ongoing emergency help, including medicine, food aid and schooling.
Bishop Antoine Audo, S.J., of Aleppo, north-west Syria, turned to ACN as a refugee crisis broke following the 2003 overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and the charity has helped ever since.
The charity’s latest refugee package for Syria of $25,400 comes amid reports showing that Iraqis continue to face huge problems on entering the country.
Exhausted after a long and sometimes tortuous journey, the refugees arriving in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and Aleppo receive help first and foremost for urgent operations and other medical aid.
Coordinated by Chaldean Catholic parishes in both cities, the relief operation also includes basic food items – tea, butter, sugar and cooking oil – distributed monthly.
In response to urgent pleas for help from young families, Bishop Audo has opened a school for refugee children in Aleppo and both there and in Damascus young people are receiving educational support from parish volunteers.
Speaking from Aleppo in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Audo said, “When the Iraqi Christians arrive in Syria, they only have the Church to help support them. It is the Church which is there for them. We are the ones providing adequate aid.”
Highlighting the importance of the aid program, he said, “We ask ACN – all the benefactors – to pray for us. We thank them for their generosity and support and we promise to continue praying for them.”
The bishop said Iraqi refugee numbers have decreased from an all-time high of 50,000. Within a year of arriving in Syria, most refugees gain visas to the West, including the U.S., Canada and Australia.
Bishop Audo explained that, although Syria is the neighboring country of choice for most emigrating Iraqis, the authorities in Damascus rarely grant permanent residency visas or work and housing permits.
Although the number of Iraqis arriving in Syria has fallen, the bishop stressed that this should not be seen as a sign that the suffering of Christians has abated.
Instead, those remaining behind – mostly the elderly – are determined to stay and look after the family home while the younger generation goes abroad.
The Chaldean-rite bishop, who is a Jesuit, said, “I do not think the situation for Christians in Iraq is improving. It is still difficult, especially in Mosul [city, north Iraq].”
“In Baghdad, it varies a lot. Life can be quite normal and then suddenly there can be attacks on the churches and acts of persecution against the people.”
His comments come after Pope Benedict XVI told the new Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See that the beleaguered country should “give priority to improved security, particularly for the various minorities.”
At the meeting earlier this month in which Habeeb Mohammed Hadi Ali al-Sadr presented his credentials to the Pontiff, the Pope stressed his concern that if at all possible, Christians resolve to stay in their ancestral homeland.
But he added, “Iraqi Christians need to know that it is safe for them to remain in or return to their homes and they need assurances that their properties will be restored to them and their rights upheld.”
Aid to the Church in Need is prioritizing help for the Middle East after Pope Benedict XVI told the charity that “Churches in the Middle East are threatened in their very existence.”
As well as helping Iraqi Christian refugees in Syria, ACN is providing aid for those fleeing to Turkey and Jordan.