Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, representing Pope Francis, and Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite Catholic patriarch, traveled to Irbil, Iraq, to meet with Christians who had fled from ISIS forces.
Walking between rows of tents and prefabricated containers serving as living areas for the displaced Christians, the cardinals were surrounded by crowds. Children eagerly approached them for a blessing. Outdoors, they stopped at a Marian shrine and prayed.
The cardinals visited families in makeshift dwellings and toured a portable medical clinic. They also met with displaced nuns, priests and seminarians who are living among and serving the uprooted Christians.
“Our main demand is that they return to their homes and lands in dignity,” Cardinal Rai said on June 19 of expelled Christians who fled to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. His remarks were reported in a statement from the Maronite Patriarchate. “We have trusted the international coalition in that. But, unfortunately, the terrorist groups are still growing and advancing.”
Cardinal Rai, who has called for an end to the supply of weapons and financing of the ISIS, denounced the silence of the international community.
“Here we should ask: Where are they receiving this strength from? Why is ISIS being treated as a state and not a terrorist group? We don’t speak the language of killing, but that of rights. The international community should not remain silent toward the violation of the rights of a whole people,” he said during the one-day visit.
Prior to leaving Beirut, Cardinal Scola told Voice of Lebanon radio, “Our trip to Irbil carries a message of solidarity with the Christians.”
In Irbil, he stressed the importance of conveying “the truth about the current situation with transparency, accuracy and objectivity.”
Cardinal Scola is president of Oasis, an international foundation that acts as a forum for dialogue and a bridge of support for Catholics in the Middle East.
The two prelates were received at Irbil’s airport by Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad; Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil; Kurdistan’s Regional Interior Minister Karim Sinjari; and other political and religious officials.
“Christians should remain in Iraq because their history is rooted in Iraq, where they have lived alongside Muslims and built common civilisations,” Cardinal Rai said. “Their future is here, too, and they cannot let go of this land.”
More than 100,000 Christians sought sanctuary in Kurdistan after ISIS militants overtook Mosul and sections of Ninevah province in summer 2014.
Sinjari said during the visit that Christians are “an essential part” of the civilisation and culture of the Iraqi people and urged the universal Church “to encourage them to stay in Iraq.”
“Their emigration is a great loss for our country,” he said.
Cardinal Rai’s visit was his second to Irbil. In August he traveled to the Kurdish capital with a delegation of Catholic patriarchs to show support and solidarity with those displaced by ISIS.