LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) – Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, the patriarch of the Maronite Catholics, said that the trip was the “first step in the implementation of the statement issued by the patriarchs,” referring to a summit that was held on August 7 to address the crisis facing Christians in Iraq and Syria.
“The first and essential clause in the statement is our support for Christians who have left their houses because of the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations.”
Cardinal Rai left Beirut with Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan and Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II.
Upon arriving in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq, the group was joined by Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad and local officials, which including Kurdistan’s Regional Interior Minister Karim Sinjari and Irbil Governor Nawzad Hadi.
The men visited three churches in Irbil and prayed with refugees from the Ninevah Plain. These refugees had fled after being told to convert to Islam, pay the tax on non-Muslims, or die. Many were robbed before they could flee.
“We want all the Christians, Muslims, Yezidis, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to stay in Iraq and not to leave because this is our homeland, this is our culture, and civilization and we do not want to part with it,” said Cardinal Rai. “The ones who want to help us must work to stop injustice, help us end injustice and help our people regain their rights. This is what we want from the ones who want to help.”
“We cannot stand idly by and watch as evil oppresses the people. We will carry our cause to the whole world.”
“We demand that the displaced be allowed to return to their land with dignity. We will not accept anything less than that,” Cardinal Rai said.
Lebanon’s National News Agency reported that the group received a promise from Kurdish authorities. A promise that Christians will be protected “until the last drop of blood.”
In a news conference held before leaving Iraq, the patriarchs expressed support for human rights, including the rights of Christians to remain in their homes.
“We cannot tolerate the tragedy we have witnessed here today,” said Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius. He urged U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to visit the regions to determine if the displaced Iraqis could continue to live this way.
Cardinal Rai said: “It is unacceptable to allow terrorist organizations to eliminate entire communities in the 21st century.”
“Do not think of emigrating; safeguard your roots,” the cardinal told Christians. “We are on your side and we will raise our voice to the international community to act against terrorism.”
Pope Francis has publicly expressed concern about Iraqi minorities, and even sent a special envoy, Cardinal Fernando Filoni to Iraq on August 13 to gather information. Cardinal Filoni arrived back in Rome on August 31.