BEIRUT: The Iraqi man carried away a box filled with food from the Assyrian Church, his passport clutched in his other hand. “It [the passport] is only so I can cross to a European country,” said the man, a refugee who fled to Lebanon after the lightning advance of ISIS in his home country. “Then I will throw it away, or burn it, until the Iraqis understand.”
“It is impossible for me to return to Iraq, because there is no hope,” he said. “They took everything, they didn’t leave anything. Why should we go back? To what?”
Dozens of Iraqi Christians were lined up at the gates of the Assyrian Diocese in Sadd al-Boushrieh to receive some 200 food packages provided by Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni religious authority in Lebanon, a signal of solidarity with the plight of Christians fleeing the turmoil in Iraq.
It also comes at a moment of tension in Lebanon, after the burning of the ISIS flag, which includes the Islamic declaration “there is no god but God,” was broadcast on social media, sparking a brief controversy and retaliation by some Sunnis.
Christians have also felt increasingly threatened by the infiltration of radical militants across the border from Syria.
“We are showing the terrorist extremists in the world, who are not Islamic, that we are all one, Christians and Muslims,” said Archdeacon Yatroun Colliana, the representative of the Assyrian community of Lebanon. “We want to send a message to terrorism.”
The number of Iraqi Christians who have fled to Lebanon in recent weeks is in the thousands.
The Assyrian Church has assisted between 350 and 400 Christian families who fled Iraq. Between 40 and 50 were Assyrians, an ancient Semitic people from Mesopotamia, and one family was Yazidi.
Last month, the Chaldean Bishop of Lebanon told The Daily Star that his church had aided 1,350 families.
The majority of Iraq’s Christians are Chaldeans.
Colliana and representatives of Dar al-Fatwa presided over the distribution of the aid at the Assyrian Diocese. Both said the aid would continue as a signal of unity between Christians and Muslims, so long as the “tragedies” facing Christians in Iraq and Syria continued.
The initiative comes after a recent visit by Dar al-Fatwa officials pledging to assist Christian refugees from Mosul, which was overrun by ISIS earlier this summer.
Colliana urged Muslims in Lebanon to take a stand against extremists. “It is very important that the Islamic sects take a daring stand,” Colliana told The Daily Star. “These extremist and terrorist organizations are not against Christians. We know that in their minds we are infidels, but they are coming to strike at moderation, which is predominant in Lebanon.
“Lebanese Islam, Sunni Islam, to preserve its moderation, has to be the face confronting this extremism. If it is not them, their turn will come.
“If they defend themselves we will defend alongside them, but their silence will harm us more than radical terrorism. The voice of your moderation must be louder.”
Colliana said what the refugees needed the most was medical supplies, since many arrived with chronic illnesses that badly needed to be treated.
Refugees also face large costs, since they arrive on tourist visas, often from Kurdish-controlled Irbil, rather than as refugees. Lebanon is not a signatory to the U.N.’s Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The Christians gathered at the Assyrian Diocese Tuesday have already paid a price.
“They destroyed all the villages, and all the houses were robbed,” said one mother who hails from the Tal Asquf village near Mosul.
The mother, who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions against her family, said she had fled a day before the arrival of ISIS at the village. There were rumors that her teenage daughters would be taken away by the militants.
“We worried our girls would be kidnapped,” she said. “They did that to the Yazidis. They want to distribute them to the mujahedeen.”
Another woman who left after the arrival of ISIS said that the militants had destroyed the cross at the local St. Georges Church, and had cut off the hand of a statue of the Virgin Mary.
“They kept insulting us and insulting our religion,” she said.
The Christian refugees said they could barely afford rent here. Many want to eventually leave Lebanon for the West.
Some talk nostalgically about the days when the Christians of Iraq had no fear, and some even talk about the days of strongman Saddam Hussein, who was ousted by the American-led invasion of 2003 – a war that paved the way for the bubbling of sectarian tensions and civil war.
“We didn’t need all this aid, we were living like kings in our homes, but they left us with nothing,” said the mother who fled Tal Asquf. “We were living like kings in Baghdad under Saddam.
“He said once that the Christians are the flowers of Iraq.”