Forgotten refugees fleeing from the barbarism of ISIS

Fylde MP Mark Menzies has visited war-torn Iraq to see the devastation caused by ISIS and meet persecuted Christians who have been forced to flee their homes.

Friday, 7th October 2016, 9:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 25th October 2016, 2:54 pm
Mark Menzies MP and Jim Shannon MPafter the ordination of Fr Martin Banni at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Ankawa, Erbil in the Kurdish Region of Iraq

During the fact-finding mission, the Member of Parliament spoke to displaced families at the Ashty 2 Camp, Ankawa, Erbil, where 5,500 people are forced to live in 1,088 housing units.

Mr Menzies, who is a member of the Catholic Legislators’ Network, was invited on the visit by the charity Aid to the Church in Need, to highlight the plight of refugees to the international community.

He said: “Many of us can remember the television images from 2014 of Christians and Yazidis fleeing heavily-armed ISIS fighters in Iraq and perishing on the mountainsides. We know the stories of the disappearance of thousands of Yazidi women and girls. That, coupled with the eradication of Christianity from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, where there were an estimated 260,000 Christians and now there are none, meant action was needed.

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“The situation was desperate and when I was asked to vote for airstrikes in Iraq in September 2014, I was sure I was doing the right thing. Having now visited Iraq and spoken to people whose lives were saved by those air strikes, I’m certain I did the right thing.

“One priest told us that, as ISIS were sweeping through the Nineveh Plain, his community was at best hours from being overwhelmed had the coalition air strikes not commenced.

“However, as an MP it is vital to see the consequences of your decisions. I recently visited RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and met the pilots who carried out missions over Iraq so this visit to meet the people on the ground who were directly affected, and in many cases saved, by the airstrikes was an important continuation of that process.

“While, rightly, there is currently much focus on the catastrophic situation facing people in Aleppo, the plight of Christians and indeed other minority groups in Iraq has fallen from the media’s attention and this is very much to the detriment of the hundreds of thousands of people affected.

“I was completely humbled by meeting and speaking to some of these families. They had lost so much but still retained a Christian belief that God will protect them and look after them.

“To see that level of faith and hope in a place of such desolation was enlightening indeed. Many of those who we spoke to had fled their homes with only the clothes on their back as ISIS fighters swept through their homelands, murdering and torturing innocent people.

“The terrible situation these refugees found themselves in seemed only to have strengthened their faith. What could have felt like a very desperate place, was actually made remarkable by the strength of people’s faith and hope.

“This was a visit I will never forget and I will be passing on my experiences to colleagues in Government to ensure they know what the situation is like on the ground in Erbil. I am also writing to churches across Fylde to tell them what I saw and ask for local congregations to remember our fellow Christians in Iraq in their prayers.

“While there are always risks in visiting areas like this, where a British MP would be a valuable target, our hosts took sensible precautions to ensure that members of the international community could see for themselves the human cost to ISIS’ bloodthirsty campaign in the Middle East.”

During the visit, Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, who is overseeing the church’s aid efforts, told the Members of Parliament that the overall number of Christian families in the camps has now fallen from 120,000 to 100,000, with many families leaving the country.

Archbishop Warda said his top priorities were renting houses for the displaced, providing them with food, setting up more medical centres and giving families pastoral and spiritual support.

He decried the lack of aid from the Iraqi government in Baghdad, but thanked charities, including Aid to the Church in Need, which assisted with raising €10m last year for a range of projects in Iraq.

The Chaldean Archbishop told the MPs: “We rely on you telling the story of the situation and the importance of Christians remaining, so that the Christians can help be a bridge between the different groups.”

While in Iraq, the MPs also attended the ordination of two new priests in Ankawa, including that of 25-year-old Fr Martin Banni, who trained at St Peter’s Seminary, Erbil. While many members of Father Banni’s family left Iraq for the US or Sweden, he chose to remain in the country to minister to those who remained.

Mr Menzies added: “On our final full day in Iraq we also drove three hours north west of Erbil to visit the 6th century Sant Hormizd Monastery, from where we were only a handful of miles from the front line.”

The trip also included a visit to a food parcel distribution centre and a meeting with Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the Kurdish Regional Government’s Department of Foreign Relations.