As secretary to Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham, Fr Rami Wakim has met scores of Syrian refugees, but said he was shocked at the flood of displaced Iraqis he encountered in Irbil, Iraq.
The Melkite priest accompanied the August 20 delegation of Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs to Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of the country, on a mission to show their support for the persecuted Christians and other minorities who sought refuge there after being expelled from their homes by the Islamic State fighters.
The delegation visited the displaced at three different churches, and Fr Wakim described mattresses scattered around church altars. Various rooms in the churches were filled to capacity – up to 50 people sleeping in areas the size of a single bedroom – with the overflow spreading onto church grounds, parking lots and streets, now dotted with makeshift tents in the 105-degree heat.
“The people are angry because the government just gave up on them. They told us that, in Mosul, where there had normally been a presence of 60,000 soldiers, after the onslaught of ISIS, in only a matter of hours, these soldiers abandoned them, laying down their weapons,” Fr Wakim said.
Mosul is now completely empty of Christians as is Qaraqosh, a town dating back to 1,000 years before Christ and inhabited by mostly Christians for 2,000 years. More than 100,000 people are displaced from Mosul alone.
“They all fled at the same time without taking anything” with them, Fr Wakim told the American Catholic News Service.
Expelled from their ancestral lands by the militants of the Islamic State, the displaced Iraqis have put their trust in church leaders and are leaning heavily on their own faith.
This was evident, Fr Wakim said, in the way swarms of people crowded around the patriarchs, kissing the crosses and medals adorning their vestments, asking the prelates for blessings and to pray over the sick.
“It was very touching. The (Melkite) patriarch cried many times when he saw these people. He was hugging and kissing them as he cried. Of course, I cried, too. I think all the patriarchs cried because they felt helpless, there was nothing they could do at that very moment,” even though they came laden with funds from church collections and donors, Fr Wakim said.
One of the major objectives of the visit was for the patriarchs, as a unified voice, to plead together for help, not just because most of those affected are Christians but because they are human beings and they are being eradicated.
Patriarch Laham had just ordained Fr Wakim a few days earlier, in Damascus, Syria.
Seeing the situation in Irbil “made me realize that the mission of a priest is very difficult, and very heavy at this time,” particularly in the Middle East, Father Wakim said.
“People look up to priests and bishops as the only solution, the only help they can get at a time where — of course we need to pray with them — but at this time prayer alone doesn’t seem enough and actions are required.”
The displaced Iraqis pleaded with the patriarchs to find a solution for them; many asked to either help them leave the country for the West, or to arrange for a safe return to their homes.
The patriarchs tried to encourage them to not be afraid, Father Wakim said. The prelates encouraged the displaced to be patient and to try to stay in Iraq, where Christianity dates back 2,000 years.
Father Wakim said the prelates promised to do everything possible for the displaced Iraqis and to speak for them internationally, wherever they visit, in their name and for their cause.