During a Nov. 28 briefing held at the National Press Club in Washington, panelists urged immediate action to support persecuted Christians in Iraq, many of whom are now returning to destroyed or damaged homes after earlier being forced to flee by ISIS.
The panel discussion was a part of a Week of Awareness for Persecuted Christians, sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and other Catholic organizations, including the Knights of Columbus. The panelists were Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, Iraq; Stephen Rasche, the general counsel for the Archdiocese of Erbil and the president of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee; Father Salar Kajo, a parish priest in the Nineveh region of Iraq; and Carl Anderson, the CEO and chairman of the board of the Knights of Columbus.
Related: Timeline of ISIS in Iraq
Related: Attacks on Assyrians in Syria By ISIS and Other Muslim Groups
Citing a Pew Research study, Anderson said Christians are targeted around the world more than any other faith group, and "Christians in Iraq are on the front lines."
In 2003, about 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq. Today, that number is somewhere between 175,000 and 300,000, after years of war there, and in recent years, many Christians were forced to flee their homes after ISIS invaded their homeland and engaged in what the State Department later characterized as genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.
"It was a really horrible experience, a terrifying experience for the Christians to be asked to convert to Islam, pay the Jizya tax, or leave," said Archbishop Warda.
Most Christians did not opt to pay the tax for non-Muslims because it became clear that the tax was merely a way to get the Christians all in one place to do them harm, noted Rasche. As a result, many Christians chose to leave their homes in the face of that persecution.
Related: Brief History of Assyrians
Related: Assyrians: Frequently Asked Questions
"They never lost hope that one day they would be able to come back again," said Archbishop Warda. But when they did return after ISIS left their villages, many of their homes and buildings had been destroyed.
"After enduring this time of displacement, everyone is full of hope that help could be provided soon," said Archbishop Warda. "We need the help today, not tomorrow."
Since 2014, the Knights of Columbus Christian Refugee Relief Fund has committed about $17 million to aid Christians and those in their care in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding region. This Christmas, the Knights will be donating $1 million in food assistance to Erbil as a sign of solidarity with the 15,000 Christian families there, so they can "enjoy Christmas a little more," said Anderson.
Anderson urged a renewed commitment to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects religious freedom. This article not only affects the 75 percent of the world that professes a faith, Anderson said, but also affects 100 percent of the world's population in terms of their rights of conscience. This global impact means the issue is not merely the concern of a special interest minority, he said.
"The most important thing we can do as American Christians and as Americans committed to human rights is to say these indigenous communities who have existed for almost two thousand years have every right to continue," said Anderson.
From those Christians, Anderson said he has learned about the "power of the powerless," since Christians in the Middle East have no political or military power, but are still a "voice of dialogue, a voice of peace and a voice of reconciliation."
"What we in the West can learn from them is that a community under those circumstances is still able to demonstrate spiritual and moral courage...to persist in their beliefs and conscience," said Anderson, adding that their example can help Christians in the West see "what living the Christian life really entails."
Anderson and the other panelists praised the Trump administration's Oct. 25 announcement that they would be giving government aid directly to groups on the ground that are working with persecuted Christians, instead of giving it to the United Nations. In the past, the UN has faced criticism that they neglected religious minority communities while they were distributing funding.
The solution to that issue, Anderson said, is for people to deal directly with the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, which the Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox churches have chosen to be their point of contact on issues of humanitarian and stabilization assistance for outside agencies.
"No one has cared for Christians on the ground more closely than Archbishop Warda," said Anderson, noting that the archbishop has cared for 15,000 displaced Christian families in Erbil, where the majority of Christians in Iraq have resided since ISIS invaded in 2014.
"He has clothed, housed, fed, educated and tendered spiritually to this scattered flock," said Anderson. "Now he is helping as many of them as possible to move back to their homes."
In 2014, the Church in Iraq was not a humanitarian aid agency, said Archbishop Warda, but since the invasion of ISIS, he and other Church leaders have been working closely to help displaced Christians.
"When it comes to the Christian community in Iraq, no one knows their needs better than those who have cared for them for the past three and one-half years," he said.
Thanking the Trump administration for making the region's persecuted Christians a priority, Archbishop Warda said the Church in Iraq would help the American government by ensuring that the aid reaches the communities that need it.
"We hope that those who seek to help us will not be afraid to learn from our successful experience both in caring for people and helping them to return home," said Archbishop Warda.
Rasche said he is encouraged by the language used by the United States government in regards to assisting persecuted Christians in the Middle East, but wished to remind everyone that "the hour is well past midnight" to help these communities, and quick action is needed.
Father Kajo, who helped negotiate peace when a recent conflict nearly erupted between the Kurdish and Iraqi forces in the Nineveh region, thanked the United States for their help in maintaining peace in his village.
"We ask [them] to keep maintaining peace there and help us to return to our villages and have a normal life like we had before ISIS," said Father Kajo.
Archbishop Warda asked Christians in the United States to pray for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, because it "gives us the sense of being together...that we are not forgotten," he said.
He also encouraged material support to the organizations like the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need and Catholic Relief Services who are assisting persecuted Christians, and he asked for people to spread awareness about their plight.
"We are not asking for a privileged life. We are asking for the minimum," said Archbishop Warda. "The minimum would be a sense of security and stability ...What we are really requesting is the minimum to live a dignified life."