A Lifeline for Persecuted Christians
As Islamic State militants swept across northern Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, the future of Christianity in the Middle East hung in the balance. ISIS systematically targeted Christians and other religious minorities for genocide, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more fleeing for their lives.
The Knights of Columbus responded by establishing the Christian Refugee Relief Fund in order to provide humanitarian assistance in cooperation with local Church leaders and other allies. In addition to committing more than $20 million in aid over the past four years, the Order has also conducted campaigns to promote prayer and raise awareness, and it has successfully advanced public policy in defense of victims of religious persecution.
The timeline that follows provides a summary of some of the many ways that the Knights of Columbus has aided vulnerable communities in the Middle East during this critical time. To support the initiative, visit christiansatrisk.org.
Aug. 11 — With an initial $500,000 and pledging to match an additional $500,000 in donations from the public, the Knights of Columbus announces the establishment of the Christian Refugee Relief Fund to aid those suffering religious persecution in Iraq and elsewhere.
“The unprovoked and systematic persecution and violent elimination of Middle East Christians, as well as other minority groups, especially in Iraq, has created an enormous humanitarian crisis,” states Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson. “Pope Francis has asked the world for prayers and support for those affected by this terrible persecution, and we are asking our members, and all people of good will, to pray for those persecuted and to support efforts to assist them by donating to this fund.”
Sept. 9 — Within weeks, the Order raises more than $2 million in donations and urges Knights and their families, as well as others, to recite the “Prayer for Those Persecuted in Iraq,” written by Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori.
Sept. 26 — Melkite Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, delivers an impassioned address at Fordham University in New York, detailing the persecution of his people.
“When we consider innocent Christian victims,” he says, “we can speak without exaggeration of several hundred dead, many of them martyrs.”
Columbia reprints an adapted version of the speech in its December 2014 issue.
October — The Knights of Columbus begins sending financial assistance to the Melkite Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo.
November — The Order donates more than $2 million to the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq, to provide food, shelter and emergency medical service to thousands of internally displaced persons under its care.
Dec. 12 — Pope Francis meets with Supreme Knight Anderson, who presents the Holy Father with $400,000 to supplement the Vatican’s efforts in the Middle East.
March 24 — Members of Holy Redeemer Council 9544 in Kanata, Ontario, welcome a Melkite Greek Catholic family that was forced to flee the ancient city of Daraa, Syria. Council 9544, together with other K of C councils and Catholic parishes, have since welcomed and assisted other refugee families as well.
July — The Order begins support of St. Elizabeth University’s Project for Iraq in Need (STEP-IN), a medical initiative that serves displaced Iraq is targeted for genocide. The Slovakian-based project includes a clinic in Erbil named for Blessed Zdenka Schelingová and a mobile clinic in Duhok named for Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko (see more on page 23).
July 25 — A K of C-produced commercial on the plight of Christians and other persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East begins airing across the United States as part of a national campaign to raise funds and awareness.
August — The Order sends additional aid to the Archdiocese of Aleppo, which provides humanitarian assistance to Christian families wanting to remain in their country.
Aug. 4 — During his annual report at the 133rd Supreme Convention in Philadelphia, Supreme Knight Anderson invites delegates to stand with him in solidarity for persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria, raising olivewood crosses and reciting together a prayer for those suffering.
“The blood of these martyrs cries out to you and me for help,” he said. “It is time for a season of truth about what is happening to Christians and other minorities.”
In the months that follow, the Supreme Council would initiate the Solidarity Cross Program — inviting K of C units to purchase 5-inch olivewood crosses made by Christian artisans in the Holy Land for distribution in their parishes and communities for a suggested donation of $10 per cross, with net proceeds going to the Christian Refugee Relief Fund. To date, more than 63,000 crosses have been distributed, raising nearly $400,000.
Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil and Archbishop Jeanbart of Aleppo each deliver keynote addresses at the Supreme Convention States Dinner.
“Churches and holy places where people had worshipped for centuries have now been destroyed and desecrated, the Holy Cross replaced by the flag of Daesh (ISIS),” recounts Archbishop Warda. “Many of these families fled to the relative safety of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where they wonder how their lives can go forward. These people are in our care, yours and mine.”
Archbishop Jeanbart similarly speaks of the plight of displaced Christians in Syria, adding, “By God’s grace and with the help of organizations like yours, we have been able to respond, in a significant way, to a good part of the humanitarian needs of our people.”
September — The Knights of Columbus finances the delivery of one month’s supply of food to more than 13,500 refugee families in Erbil.
Sept. 11 — At the second annual Solidarity Dinner of the In Defense of Christians National Leadership Convention in Washington, D.C., Supreme Knight Anderson delivers a keynote address. “You and I know the truth about what is happening to Christians in the Middle East,” he says, noting that Pope Francis used the term “genocide” in relation to Christians and other minority communities in Iraq and Syria.
The dinner concludes three days of intense media and advocacy work by the Knights and conference participants. On Sept. 10, participants visited some 300 congressional offices, urging members of Congress to vote for H. Con. Res. 75, a bill introduced the previous day by U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) that would designate the Islamic State’s actions in the region as genocide.
October — A 15-year-old Chaldean Catholic girl from Iraq named Katreena recovers at the residence of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Enfield, Conn., after receiving treatment at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. Injured while fleeing from ISIS with her family in 2014, she was able to travel to the United States for medical care thanks to the Knights’ support.
November — The Order donates to Catholic Relief Services, sponsoring the Church’s efforts to educate Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Jordan.
Dec. 9 — Supreme Knight Anderson delivers testimony during a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., on “Fulfilling the Humanitarian Imperative: Assisting Victims of ISIS Violence.” He implores the U.S. State Department to “publicly acknowledge that genocide is taking place against the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria.”
January — The Christian Refugee Relief Fund exceeds $5 million in total donations.
March 9 — The Knights of Columbus, in cooperation with In Defense of Christians, submits a major report titled Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East to the U.S. State Department. The 280- page report presents comprehensive evidence that Christians in territories controlled by ISIS have been killed, kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery, driven from their homes and dispossessed. It also includes interviews with witnesses of such atrocities collected during a recent K of C fact-finding mission to Iraq.
The following day, the report is made public at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where Supreme Knight Anderson is joined by Coptic Orthodox Bishop Anba Angaelos of the United Kingdom; Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom; Prof. Robert Destro of The Catholic University of America; and Father Douglas Bazi, among others.
March 17 — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declares that Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East face genocide at the hands of ISIS. Supreme Knight Anderson applauds the designation as “correct and truly historic.”
April 19 — At a Congressional hearing titled “Confronting the Genocide of Religious Minorities: A Way Forward,” Supreme Knight Anderson underscores policy recommendations such as assisting genocide survivors who wish to come to the United States and ensuring stability for minorities who remain in the Middle East.
Nine days later, he delivers an address at a U.N. conference titled “Defending Religious Freedom and Other Human Rights: Stopping Mass Atrocities Against Christians and Other Believers.” Other speakers at the conference, organized by the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations, include Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University and a member of Potomac Council 433 in Washington, D.C.; and Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean Catholic priest who was kidnapped and tortured by Islamist extremists before running a refugee center in Erbil.
May 1 — Archbishop Jeanbart of Aleppo delivers an address to more than 350 people at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., the birthplace of the Order. He urges his listeners “to help and to save” the Christians in Syria, who “have been living for 2,000 years among hardships, difficulties and persecutions.”
The following day, Archbishop Jeanbart and the supreme knight hold a joint press conference at the Knights of Columbus headquarters.
May 26 — Supreme Knight Anderson testifies before members of Congress at a hearing titled “The ISIS Genocide Declaration: What Next?”
The supreme knight’s testimony would become the basis for the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017, or H.R. 390.
June — The Christian Refugee Relief Fund exceeds $10 million in donations.
Aug. 2 — Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch, a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus, delivers an address on the dire situation for Christians in the Middle East during the opening business session at the 134th Supreme Convention in Toronto.
“Our Churches go back to the first Christian communities, in their liturgy, traditions, culture and language,” he says. “They are now a kind of endangered species that could be wiped out for good!”
Aug. 3 — At a press conference during the Supreme Convention, Patriarch Younan, Archbishop Jeanbart and Archbishop Warda speak about the ongoing suffering and needs of their people.
“If Christian families can live in a dignified way through programs like education, shelter, food and health, then we will be able really to keep our community alive,” Archbishop Warda explains. “Thanks to support from the Knights of Columbus, we are closing some camps and moving families to decent housing.”
Sept. 8 — At the third annual In Defense of Christians Solidarity Dinner in Washington, D.C., Supreme Knight Anderson receives the IDC Lifetime Achievement Award for his and the Order’s work on behalf of Christians and other persecuted minorities.
Sept. 22 — Supreme Knight Anderson testifies before the U.S. Helsinki Commission on Capitol Hill at a hearing titled “Atrocities in Iraq and Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators,” convened by commission chairman Rep. Chris Smith (RNJ). Anderson calls on the U.S. government to deliver aid directly to Christian and other minority communities who are victims of genocide in Iraq and Syria.
Oct. 12 — The Path to Peace Foundation honors the Knights of Columbus and Supreme Knight Anderson with the 2016 Path to Peace Award “for their direct assistance to the victims of violence in the Middle East and their effective advocacy for the recognition of the persecution of Christians and other ethnic and religious minority groups there as genocide.
December — Following the Dec. 11 bombing by an Islamic State militant of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral complex in Cairo, Egypt, which killed 29 people during Mass, the Supreme Council sends support for the families of victims.
March 24 — The Benedict Leadership Institute at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C., presents Supreme Knight Anderson with the inaugural Benedict Leadership Award for the Order’s work on behalf of persecuted Christians.
“It is our hope that your award will bring attention and relief to persecuted Christians and move the public to act more decisively in their behalf,” states Conor Gallagher, the institute’s executive director.
April — After the bombing of two Coptic Christian churches by Islamic State militants that killed at least 47 people and wounded more than 100 in Egypt on Palm Sunday, April 9, the Order distributes $100,000 to support relief efforts.
Aug. 1 — During his annual report at the 135th Supreme Convention in St. Louis, Supreme Knight Anderson announces that the Knights of Columbus will fund the resettlement and restoration of Karamles, an ancient Christian town in Iraq. The Knights of Columbus Board of Directors set a $2 million fundraising goal, which would help 1,000 families to return (see more on page 20).
The supreme knight also announces that the Knights of Columbus and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will co-sponsor a Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians on Nov. 26, followed by a Week of Awareness and Education.
Oct. 12 — Supreme Knight Anderson participates in the first government-sponsored conference on Christian persecution in Budapest, Hungary, titled “International Consultation on the Persecution of Christians — Finding the Appropriate Answers to a Long Neglected Crisis.” The Hungarian government donated $2 million in May 2017 to rebuild the predominantly Christian town of Teleskof, Iraq.
Oct. 24 — By alerting the U.S. government of a developing territorial dispute in Teleskof, the Knights of Columbus is instrumental in helping de-escalate a potentially devastating armed conflict between Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Oct. 25 — The supreme knight introduces U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the fourth annual In Defense of Christians Solidarity Dinner in Washington, D.C. The vice president pledges that the U.S. government will provide aid to suffering Christians in the Middle East and singles out the Knights of Columbus for “extraordinary work caring for the persecuted around the world.”
Nov. 11 — In recognition of the work of the Knights of Columbus to end the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, the Custody of the Holy Land, led by Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, presents Supreme Knight Anderson with its Grato Animo Award at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.
Nov. 26-Dec. 2 — The Knights of Columbus joins the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other Catholic groups in sponsoring a Week of Awareness for Persecuted Christians.
Events include a press conference with Archbishop Warda of Erbil and other leaders at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Nov. 27; a Mass celebrated Nov. 28 by Archbishop Warda at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., in memory of the victims of genocide; and a Nov. 30 conference cosponsored by the Knights and the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
December — In time for Christmas, the Order provides a 30-day supply of food to 12,000 displaced or formerly displaced Christian families in Erbil.
March 9-10 — St. John the Baptist Parish Council 10305 in Fort Calhoun, Neb., hosts a “Rebuilding the Cradle of Christianity” event in Omaha to raise awareness as well as funds to support the K of C effort to rebuild Karamles. Coordinated by Supreme Director Mike Conrad, the event welcomed Syriac Catholic Bishop Barnaba Yousif Benham Habash, among other speakers, and raised $163,000 to help rebuild more than 80 homes for Christians in Iraq.
March — During Holy Week, the Order provides funds to support several initiatives: the Archdiocese of Erbil’s food program for internally displaced communities; programs run by the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate based in Lebanon for some 3,000 refugee families from Iraq and Syria, who are in need of food, clothing, shelter and access to education and medical care; and the ongoing commitment to rebuild and resettle the town of Karamles.
April 15 — At St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford celebrates a Mass for persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Bishop Bawai Soro of the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of Mar Addai of Toronto, a native of Iraq, delivers the homily and speaks after the Mass, which concludes a prayer, education and fundraising initiative among local Catholic high schools.
Aug. 7 — At the 136th Supreme Convention in Baltimore, the Knights of Columbus commits to complete the construction of McGivney House, a 140-unit apartment building in Erbil that will provide housing for both Syriac and Chaldean families.
A new pilgrim icon titled “Our Lady Help of Persecuted Christians” is blessed at Mass the following day, inaugurating the Order’s 18th Marian Prayer Program.
Oct. 12 – The Knights agrees in a memorandum of understanding with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to cooperate in assisting religious minorities in the Middle East rebuild their communities following the persecution and genocide of ISIS.
Nov. 28 – The U.S. Congress passes H.R. 390, known as the “Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018.” The bipartisan legislation written by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and co-sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), will provide humanitarian relief for victims of genocide in Iraq and Syria, while holding ISIS perpetrators accountable.
The supreme knight applauds its passage saying it “makes clear that those targeted for genocide by ISIS should be included in American government assistance in the region.”
Dec. 11 – President Donald Trump signs H.R. 390, making the “Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018, law.
PRAYER FOR PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS
O God of all the Nations, the One God who is and was and always will be, who in your providence willed that your Church be united to the suffering of your Son, look with mercy on your servants who are persecuted for their faith in you. Grant them perseverance and courage to be worthy imitators of Christ. Bring your wisdom upon leaders of nations to work for peace among all peoples. May your Spirit open conversion for those who contradict your will that we live in harmony. Give us the grace to be united in truth and freedom, and to always seek your will in our lives. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Our Lady Help of Persecuted Christians, pray for us.