Baltimore agencies bring aid to religious minorities in Middle East, as genocide is declared

Baltimore agencies pour millions into aid for religious minorities in the Middle East.

Archbishop William E. Lori, the leader of the Baltimore archdiocese's half-million Catholics, has counseled other leaders he's hosted in recent years from churches in Iraq and Syria, where Christians face the kind of persecution they haven't seen since the Ottoman Empire killed hundreds of thousands a century ago.

They've told him about members of their flock who were beheaded. They've told him of others who were kidnapped and haven't been seen since. Even as one Syrian Catholic bishop sat with Lori in the archbishop's home, news arrived that militants were bombing his cathedral in the city of Aleppo.

"The persecution of Christians and others is a source of great grief," Lori said in an interview. "We really need to pray for those people affected."

"The joy of Easter is not meant to mask suffering. It's meant to give hope to those who suffer, to bring hope to the hopeless," he added. "We can all be agents of the Resurrection."

As Easter dawns Sunday, Catholic Relief Services and other humanitarian relief agencies in Baltimore and across the U.S. will reach out to Christians and other religious minorities facing persecution in the Middle East. This month, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that Islamic State attacks on Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq constitute genocide.

The agencies, including Lutheran World Relief, World Relief and International Orthodox Christian Charities — agencies headquartered in the Baltimore area for decades — have poured tens of millions in aid into the region since the Syrian civil war began five years ago. Working with churches, Christian schools and other organizations, they've provided emergency shelter, medical care and trauma counseling, clean water and "safe spaces" for children to play.

Officials with the organizations say the humane beliefs at the heart of their shared religion is what drives their complex, at times dangerous work.

"Loving the other and helping those in need is ingrained in all Christian values, and none of us takes that lightly, especially in the current context of the Middle East," said Mark Ohanian, director of international programs for Towson-based International Orthodox Christian Charities, or IOCC.

"The scale of the suffering is staggering, but … there are human faces behind the statistics," said Kevin Hartigan, regional director for the Middle East for Catholic Relief Services. "Each of these millions of displaced people is an individual uprooted from a full life, a family member, a loved one. It's a humbling privilege to do this work."

The Syrian crisis is so complex and daunting that World Relief CEO Stephan Bauman, who oversees the work of 2,000 staffers and 100,000 volunteers worldwide, sounds distraught when discussing it.

World Relief was founded in 1944, when the National Association of Evangelicals, a network of evangelical churches and organizations in the U.S., resolved to address humanitarian needs in a Europe devastated by war. Like the other aid agencies, it eventually relocated to Baltimore because of its proximity to Washington and relatively low cost of living.

"You have to have a Ph.D. to understand all the history and division that has resulted in the tensions we're dealing with today," Bauman said.

When the Arab Spring arrived in Syria in 2011, President Bashar al-Assad ordered a brutal crackdown on dissidents, killing 5,000. The move sparked a civil war, ended the protection of religious minorities and triggered an exodus.

Two years later, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — also known as ISIS, Da'esh or the Islamic State — formed in Iraq around a ruthless interpretation of Islam. The group uses terror tactics and military force to seize territories and brutalize practitioners of other faiths, including what it sees as insufficiently strict forms of Islam.

Nearly half of Syria's 22 million people were dead or displaced by 2014. More than 4 million had flooded into neighboring countries, catastrophically straining infrastructure. In Lebanon alone, about one-fifth of the population consisted of refugees, including 600,000 Christians.

Among the displaced, Muslims outnumber Christians by more than 2-to-1, according to Ohanian of the IOCC.

Ohanian points out that Iraq's Christian population has plunged 80 percent since 2003, Syria's by 65 percent in the past five years, and that for the first time in 2,000 years, no Masses are being celebrated in Mosul, Iraq, a historic center for the Assyrian Church.

An Armenian Christian who lives in Baltimore, Ohanian cites research showing that when refugees are away from home for five years or more, they rarely return — a fact that leaves him wondering whether his faith is on the verge of extinction in the region.

"I do worry more and more each day that we are losing this battle," he said.

The IOCC, the international humanitarian agency of an American council of Orthodox bishops, is one of the few aid agencies left working inside Syria.

It has more than half of its nearly 600-person staff in that nation, working in every locality except those controlled by ISIS and other militant groups. The organization has spent $113 million since 2012 supplying medical aid, food and nonfood assistance, help with delivering babies, rental assistance and other services.

Lutheran World Relief has no staffers in the region but has poured $9 million into emergency aid there in the past three years, reaching more than 200,000 beneficiaries with supplies including thousands of its signature handmade quilts.

Catholic Relief Services, the international relief arm of the U.S. Catholic Church, has supported more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt the past five years, Hartigan said, spending $40 million in 2015 alone to provide medical help, counseling for trauma victims and hygiene kits.

When war first broke out, Ohanian said, builders across the region abruptly stopped work, leaving countless new homes unfinished. Catholic Relief Services and the IOCC have expanded housing stock by adding windows, doors and plumbing where needed.

"Whole families live in every room, but they're out of the winter cold," Hartigan said.

The organizations hire staff from local populations, including refugees and citizens of every local faith, and partner with local churches. They also work in the region with agencies such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and pair up with such ecumenical groups as ACT Alliance, a global consortium with ties to the Lutheran, Assyrian and Eastern Orthodox denominations.

Bauman, of World Relief, said the mass displacement, violence, factionalism and rumors of war crimes can feel like insurmountable hurdles. But every time he travels to the region — he was in Iraq two weeks ago — he has seen members of disparate faiths and groups unite for the common good, generating hope in small but steady ways, and that helps dispel his own doubts.

"The barriers are so high," he said. "They've been around for so long. But that's the long-term holy grail."

It can take refugees years to accept that they won't be going home anytime soon, Hartigan said, but as that awareness has taken hold, Catholic Relief Services has begun a pivot to longer-term initiatives, most notably working to expand educational opportunities for children.

"Children who miss years of school might never recover. At this point we're at risk of losing generations," he said.

In 2014, Pope Francis declared that ISIS is committing genocide against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. The European Parliament, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, several international genocide prevention organizations and the U.S. House of Representatives followed suit.

Under intense political pressure, Kerry made the call on behalf of the U.S. government.

The U.N. Security Council has defined genocide as actions committed "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

"In my judgment, Da'esh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims," he said, citing documented instances of beheadings, crucifixions and acts of enslavement. "Da'esh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions."

While that assertion doesn't necessarily mean the U.S. will take legal or military action, experts say declaring genocide can put pressure on governments to act, spur relief donations and lay the groundwork for prosecutions in the International Criminal Court.

Ohanian said the hallmarks of genocide are hard to miss.

He describes walking through a Damascus plastered with thousands of posters from families commemorating the lives of loved ones who had been killed. "So many martyrs," he said. "So much killing. It's untenable. Five years of this is too long."

Bauman tells of a refugee he knows, an Iraqi Catholic woman who told him of fleeing Mosul with her family as ISIS stormed the city 21 months ago. On the road to Irbil, a sanctuary city, she saw bearded militants pull screaming women from their cars, throw them in vans and drive away.

But even in our darkest moments, hope can survive, he said.

The woman and her daughters reached Irbil unscathed.

"God was with us," she told Bauman.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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