BEIRUT: Visiting the Kurdish capital Irbil, Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai called Wednesday on the international community to help Iraq’s minorities, asking the country’s Christians to stick to their roots and not leave the country.
“We must work to liberate Christians, who must remain in Iraq and the Arab world so that we may testify to the Bible of peace, brotherhood and human dignity, and this is what we need today more than ever,” Rai said.
“The Iraqi refugees are innocent; they built Iraq and contributed to its renaissance,” he added. “They have been Christians for 2,000 years, and the international community should not watch the extinction of a civilization and a culture built by Christians with their Muslim brothers.”
“Those who want to help the Christian people in the region can come help them in their own land by creating jobs and building hospitals and schools,” the patriarch said in a news conference after touring the Kurdish capital. “Not by calling on them to emigrate.”
He said it was the international community’s responsibility to protect the marginalized peoples of the region, stressing that “it is unacceptable to allow terrorist organizations to eliminate entire communities in the 21st century.”
The patriarch urged Iraq’s minorities to insist on staying in their land, promising to do his best to convince political actors to put efforts into helping them.
“Do not think of emigrating; safeguard your roots,” he said. “We are on your side and we will raise our voice to the international community to act against terrorism.”
Responding to a question about whether he had actually called on the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria to engage in dialogue, Rai said: “I haven’t called on ISIS for dialogue; I was simply asking them if after losing everything else, their humanity is still there to talk to.”
Rai arrived in Irbil earlier Wednesday heading a delegation of Christian religious figures to show support to the thousands who have been displaced by the advance of Islamist militants.
The patriarch identified three goals for the trip: first, to express solidarity with persecuted Christians in Iraq; second, to meet with Vatican officials; and third, to ask the international community to take responsibility and put a stop to ISIS.
The National News Agency reported that Rai received a promise from the Kurdish authorities that Christians would be protected “until the last drop of blood.” The Kurdish officials also condemned those inviting Christians to leave Iraq for Western countries, the NNA said.
The delegation, which includes Greek Melkite Patriarch Gregory III Lahham, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Joseph Younan and Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem, left the airport directly for the Chaldean Catholic Church, which is housing Christian refugees.
Lahham, for his part, promised to fast and pray for a month “for all our countries in need of peace.”
He emphasized that the religious figures had gathered to “speak in one voice,” and added: “If we can love each other as Arabs we can build a world based on love, because love never dies.”
Addressing the Christians of Iraq, he said: “You are on the path of the cross ... but do not forget that historically you have been known as ‘the children of the resurrection.’”
Kurdistan’s Regional Interior Minister Karim Sinjari, Irbil Governor Nawzad Hadi and a number of officials were at the airport to welcome the delegation, Lebanon’s state-run NNA said.
Speaking at Beirut’s airport before the trip, Rai strongly criticized superpowers and Arab countries for failing to support Iraqi Christians fleeing their ancestral homes.
He slammed “potential world powers and Arab states [that] have not stood in support of the protection of Christians in Iraq, Syria and other [countries],” the NNA said.
At the local level, Rai said he was willing to meet Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah in the wake of escalating terrorism concerns.
“A dialogue committee already exists between Bkirki and Hezbollah, and we are ready to hold any meeting in this respect,” Rai said in response to a question. “We also stress that the Lebanese people should unite and assume their responsibilities so that, together, we can face the great danger, ISIS, which has begun to enter Lebanon.”