Worst fears realized with ISIS emergence

Worst fears realized with ISIS emergence

isisIn this Aug. 6, 2014, photo, displaced Iraqis who fled from their towns after advances by Islamic militants take shelter in Najaf, Iraq. Some 50,000 newly displaced Shiite Turkmen arrived the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where they are safe for now _ but not without extreme hardship. They journeyed several hours across Iraq’s sprawling deserts. Some traveled without food or water in the blistering heat made worse by an overcrowded buses of hysterical refugees _ many of them far less fortunate, having lost a relative or two at the hands of the unforgiving militants who view them as apostates. (AP Photo/Jaber al-Helo) The Associated Press
SAN DIEGO — The man in Iraq sounded desperate.

“We have been waiting and waiting for help,” Abu Ammar told Chaldean Catholic Bishop Frank Kalabat during a Friday morning telephone call from Dohuk, Iraq, shared with U-T San Diego. “By the time you are done with all of your meetings, the Christians might be all gone because of ISIS.”

Ammar is among a group of people in Iraq in regular contact with Kalabat and other Chaldean leaders here and across the United States working to rush aid to an estimated 400,000 Christians displaced by the insurgent Islamic State or ISIS.

Chaldeans, including San Diego’s Mark Arabo, have been lobbying the Obama administration and United Nations to rescue the stranded Christians, and they have been warning about persecution in Iraq for more than a decade. San Diego County is home to an estimated 70,000 Iraqis, primarily Chaldeans, who have come since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

When Iraq descended into chaos shortly after the invasion, Christians who have called the Middle Eastern country home since before the birth of Islam came into the cross hairs of Muslim fundamentalists. As a result of killings and mass migration, the Christian population of more than 1.2 million is now believed to number fewer than half that, according to a July Congressional Research Service Report.

Arabo took his concerns directly to Obama in the fall of 2011 at a San Diego fund-raiser he attended, directly asking the president for help.

“Iraq still is struggling to make the transition to democracy that is necessary,” Obama then responded. “It’s going to be in fits and starts. We’ve been putting a lot of pressure on the Iraqis to say if you want the U.S. as a long-term ally, than you’ve got to observe certain principles. You can’t fall back into the kind of sectarian divisions that ripped the country apart after we invaded. And we’ll continue to apply that pressure.”

But Obama also warned that religious freedom in the restive country was susceptible to sectarian violence and intolerance.

“Minority rights can fall victim,” he said.

For Christians who remained in Iraq at the start of this year, those rights have fallen to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of Islamic State, who was once in U.S. custody but was considered a low-level figure and eventually released. It is Baghdadi who is leading the ISIS scourge, precipitating the humanitarian crisis that prompted Obama to order airstrikes and humanitarian relief 10 days ago.

The shadowy Baghdadi demands Christians convert or leave, and there have been numerous reports of executions and kidnapping of girls and women under his direction.

The New York Times last week quoted a Pentagon official who said Baghdadi was “a street thug when we picked him up in 2004. It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS.”

“We should have never released him,” Arabo said. “We should never negotiate with terrorists and we should never release them. When he was released, he reportedly told his guards ‘I will see you in New York.’”

On Friday, the efforts of Arabo and other U.S. Chaldeans continued to see success as the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution blasting ISIS for the “negative impact of their violent extremist ideology and actions on the stability of the region, the devastating humanitarian impact on the civilian populations and the role of these groups in fomenting sectarian tensions.”

The resolution places six men affiliated with ISIS and aligned groups on its al-Qaeda sanctions list, and threatens measures against those who finance, recruit or supply weapons to the insurgents.

“This is a monumental step in the fight against ISIS,” said Arabo, who was at the U.N. on Wednesday and Thursday. “It is our moral responsibility to stop the onslaught of this rapidly growing organization and that begins through a policy of containment. Resolutions like the one passed by the United Nations reaffirms our commitment toward stopping the financial and logistical stability of ISIS.”

On Thursday, the U.N. declared its highest level emergency for the crisis in Iraq, releasing millions of dollars in aid to feed, clothe and shelter the displaced Christians massed near the border with Turkey and Syria.

Arabo said Christians have been particularly under siege since Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Malaki took office in 2006. Al-Malaki stepped down on Thursday under U.S. and international pressure to cede the office in hopes for a more inclusive central government and one able to confront ISIS.

“But it was more isolated killings and bombings,” he said in comparison to the wave of violence spread by ISIS in the last two months.

More than a million Iraqi Christians are believed to have fled the sectarian violence since 2003. Many of those who remained behind relocated to northern Iraq only to face more threats when the U.S. withdrew combat forces.

“The world community had trusted Malaki and his government to protect the Christians, but he didn’t,” Arabo said. “We have seen unrest since the U.S. invasion but after the troops came home, crimes against Christians increased tenfold. And now under ISIS, it is a systematic cleansing.”

Three weeks ago, the U.S. State Department recognized as much in its annual International Religious Freedom Report: “Out of fear or by force, entire neighborhoods are emptying of residents. Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map. In conflict zones in particular, this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.”

While the world is responding, advocacy groups push for asylum for displaced Christians. Arabo wants Obama to grant tens of thousands of asylum waivers, and his group has petitioned Austria, Belgium, Germany, Holland and Australia to join France in offering immediate refuge.

“The world has a moral obligation to act,” Arabo argued.

For many local Chaldeans, these are indeed desperate days as they await word of their loved ones in Iraq. One is an aunt of Ray Dawood. Her parents and extended family called 10 days ago to report they were safe. The next day, she got another call telling her the Kurdish fighters who had been protecting them were disappearing as ISIS advanced through northern Iraq. The family was told to flee, she said.

“We don’t know where any of them are,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition her name not be used because she fears for her family’s safety. “I am frustrated and I don’t even know what to worry about the most.”

It isn’t the first time she’s has had such worries. A little more than two years ago, she and her husband fled Iraq after he witnessed a close friend killed. Her husband and his friend were bus drivers in Mosul and part of a three-bus convoy when a bomb blew up the friend’s bus.

The never-ending violence prompted them to leave, and they eventually made their way to East County.Among them is a man who East County Chaldean community leader Noori Barka, who said an Iraqi immigrant told him Thursday his brother brother had been killed by ISIS. That man will tell his story at a fundraiser set for Aug. 27 at the St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon, Barka said