Bishop's Heart and Mind - Support for our Middle East Christian Sisters and Brothers
After our Conference of Australian Bishops in May, I decided I would share a little news of the tragic plight of Christians in the Middle East.

In our Conference there are three Bishops, or Eparchs, of the Churches which originate from the Middle East:- the Maronite Church from Lebanon; the Melkite Church mainly from Syria; and the Chaldean Church from Iraq. Over the years, and in recent times, members of these Churches have migrated to Australia and so each of these Churches now have a Bishop here.

We have two Bishops Conferences a year, one in May and one in November. At our November Conference in 2014 the Bishops of the Middle East spoke of the distressful situation of their, and our, fellow Christians in the Middle East. The situation has arisen because of the terrible conflict in these countries and the persecution, isolation and killing of Christians, particularly in Iraq.

The three Bishops, in speaking of the distressful situation spoke also of their concern for these people and the support that they and their own Dioceses wish to offer. They also asked for the support of the wider Church in Australia.

So dear people we turned to you. We asked for your prayers and financial support for them last December.  From a quick collection one Sunday last December our Diocese raised $5,000. Sincere thanks.

A delegation of five Bishops - the three Middle Eastern Bishops and the Archbishops of Canberra and Tasmania - between the 15th - 19th December 2014 visited Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and the internally displaced people in Erbil, Kurdistan, which is a  region of Northern Iraq. They brought our prayers and our financial support. Almost a half million dollars was collected by Christmas from the Middle East and Roman Catholic Churches in Australia. Of this approximately one sixth was given to Caritas Lebanon, where there are refugees from Syria as well as Iraq, and five sixths approximately was given to the Chaldean Diocese in Erbil, Iraq. This is the more recent hardest hit area.

We were given some sad facts about Iraq. In 1993 there were approximately one million Christians there. By 2014 there were only approximately 200,000 remaining. From 2013 on more than 1,000 Christians have been killed, including one Bishop and five Priests. At present there are some 120,000 Iraqi Christian refugees from Mosul currently living in Erbil, north of Iraq.

The advance of ISIS has been described as ‘slow-motion genocide’.

Churches have been destroyed, Monasteries attacked, Congregations have been bombed during Worship and entire cities purged. The visiting Bishops were struck by the huge difference that they experienced between simply following the news about persecuted Christians, and actually going there and witnessing their plight, listening to them and hearing their stories. These first-person narratives moved them to tears and brought home how critical the situation really is. Ongoing action, both spiritual and temporal, is so much needed.

These Bishops visited the refugees camping out in tents and in uncompleted buildings and having to survive in harsh winter conditions. They were told of how they had been subject to horrors, driven out of their homes to save their own lives and those of their children. These displaced people now struggle with uncertainly about their future. They simply do not know whether they have any possibility of returning, or if they will be able to stay where they are, or even immigrate.

There are thousands of children deprived of hygienic living conditions, without school for lengthy periods of seven months or more.

Apart from all the deprivation these people have endured, the Bishops said that it was even more painful to hear that these displaced persons expressed how they felt they had been forgotten, even abandoned by their brothers and sisters in the western world.

As I listened to this catastrophe I felt that because it was so huge what could such a delegation achieve.

It was true that prayers have been offered for them and that some material aide from the Church in Australia has been given to them. The visiting Bishops said that coming as they did and representing the Church in Australia, the people found their visit a real morale boost. We also know that Pope Francis is very much aware of these situations, regularly asks prayers for the people and has sent his Secretary of State with financial help to visit them also.  I have also read since then that Conferences of Catholic Bishops in Canada, America, France, Italy and Germany are also reaching out to the people in these areas.

I thought I would write this short article so that we would be a little more informed about these tragic situations which affect so many people including our fellow Christians.  I write also to ask your continued prayers for these people in the present plight. Let us also pray that countries might rise up to work together to stop these atrocities and to restore peace to these places that are cradles of Christianity.

Because this sad situation is little known and understood in the western world and among western Governments, at our Bishops Conference we decided to take further action. Our Conference endorsed the proposal of the Middle East Bishops that there be a joint Committee established consisting of members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference with members also from the Bishops and Representatives of the Middle Eastern Churches.  The group of Bishops who made the pastoral visit in December would form the foundational group. It would have the following tasks:

1.      Liaising with the Australian Government and where necessary the State Governments.

2.      Assisting the media in obtaining consistent and accurate reporting of the events in the region.

3.      Acting as a provider of general information and resources regarding the situation in the Middle East and North Africa.

While the Bishops in their Report did not ask for more financial aid, if people wish to contribute they can do so by sending a cheque made out to ‘Melkite Catholic Eparchy’ and post it c/- Sue Nabaki, PO Box 620, Greenacre, NSW, 2190. See our Diocesan Website for the Electronic Funds option.