Obama to Iraqi refugees: “Today, America is coming to help”

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It’s about time.

Atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities have been perpetrated for months and have grown more ferocious and dire in recent weeks. Then overnight, the horrific account of the Yazidis running for their lives and stranded on a desolate mountain in Kurdistan finally got the world’s attention, those elite media and world leaders who were saying and doing next to nothing or nothing until now.

Elizbabeth Scalia has used her megaphone and all social networking media to call attention to the problem and point to possible avenues of relief. Take a look at just that handful of examples of Christian cleansing from their ancient homeland. With no government response and practically no media mention at all.

Then overnight, this happened and hit the collective consciousness.

Stranded on a barren mountaintop, thousands of minority Iraqis are faced with a bleak choice: descend and risk slaughter at the hands of the encircled Sunni extremists or sit tight and risk dying of thirst.

Humanitarian agencies said Tuesday that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians remain trapped on Mount Sinjar since being driven out of surrounding villages and the town of Sinjar two days earlier. But the mountain that had looked like a refuge is becoming a graveyard for their children.

Unable to dig deep into the rocky mountainside, displaced families said they have buried young and elderly victims of the harsh conditions in shallow graves, their bodies covered with stones. Iraqi government planes attempted to airdrop bottled water to the mountain on Monday night but reached few of those marooned.

“There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads,” said Marzio Babille, the Iraq representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”

…“Children have died because of dehydration and lack of food,” Vian Dakheel, a Yazidi parliamentarian from Sinjar, said through tears. “My people are being slaughtered,” she continued, referring to reports of mass killings of those who had stayed behind.

Tireless human rights activist Nina Shea had issued this warning about issuing only a statement on so massive a humanitarian crisis. And she describes it in more gruesome detail.

On Wednesday, Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in northern Iraq’s Nineveh province, came under assault from the Islamic State, and all 50 to 60,000 of its residents have fled to Erbil in Kurdistan. In June, Qaraqosh’s residents had fled in terror when Mosul was taken but, some 80 percent of them had since returned. The recent exodus was triggered when jihadists’ mortars killed two children and a 30-year-old woman.

Yesterday, the Christian residents of other Nineveh towns and villages, Bartilla, and Bahzany, also left and sought safe haven in the monastery of Mar Mattai, as well as in Erbil and Duhok. Ba’ashiqa and the Ba’ashiqa Monastery are being evacuated by their inhabitants and the displaced civilians who had recently sought refuge there. The Yazidi and Christian families who lived in Ein Sifni are all fleeing.

The enormity of the humanitarian crisis of the cascading exodus from Nineveh was overshadowed, though, by the early reports indicating genocide is taking place against the people of Sinjar, who are mostly followers of the Yazidi religion but also include some Christians.

The Yazidi city of Sinjar and the towns of Tal Afar and Zummar, captured on Sunday by the Islamic State, remain under jihadi control. Some 200,000 of their citizens fled, mostly to Kurdistan. But about 40,000 are now in a truly desperate situation, trapped on Mount Sinjar, where they had fled on foot without provisions and are now dying. Quoting a UNICEF spokesperson, the Washington Post reports today: “There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads. There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”

Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana reports that Kurdistan’s High Commission of Human Rights airlifted ten shipments of aid, each with 20 tons of provisions, to those on Mount Sinjar today.

Others who did not manage to escape have been executed, abducted into sex slavery, or are being used by jihadis as human shields.

This is horrific. The ‘international community’ surely could not allow this to continue….one could only hope and pray.

The following is a description of their ongoing ordeal from a report sent today by Christiana Patto of the Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq:

Yesterday 45 children died of thirst. Some families throw their children from the top of Sinjar mountain in order not to see them die from hunger or thirst, or not to be taken by the terrorists. 1500 men were killed in front of their wives and families, 50 old men died also from thirst and illness. More than 70 girl and women including Christians were taken, raped and being captured and sold. More than 100 families are captured in Tel afar airport. There is about 50 Christian families in Sinjar. The terrorists were able to control the Syriac church there and cover the Cross with their black banner. Till now we do not know anything about those Christian families.

Read these numbers as human lives, each and every one. Men, women, children, very young and very old, terrorized and driven by fear and self-preservation to the mountains with nothing but what they were wearing and who they could carry or help make the climb along the agonizing, torturous way. While we sit comfortably in the West either unaware of the ‘headlines’ (behind which there is so much massive human atrocity and unimaginable suffering) or aware and engaged but feeling helpless to do anything about it.

In booking Catholic Near East Welfare Association Communications Director Michael La Civita to come back on my radio program this Friday for the third time in three weeks, I learned that listeners had opened their hears and resources to respond to the persecuted religious minorities in dire need, and they were so grateful. But guest after guest on radio, experts all, expressed frustration at the lack of attention to the crisis by government and media.

I talked about it again on Thursday’s show, calling for awareness of a crisis of epic proportions that grew horrific overnight, citing Pope Francis’ latest appeal for relief. Its tone had increased in extreme urgency.

Pope Francis asked Catholics around the world to pray for tens of thousands of Christians from villages in northeastern Iraq who were forced from their homes in the middle of the night by Islamic State militants.

The pope also made a “pressing appeal to the international community to take initiatives to put an end to the humanitarian drama underway, to take steps to protect those involved and threatened by violence and to ensure the necessary aid for so many displaced people whose fate depends on the solidarity of others,”…

Think about that, having your very fate in the hands of people in other parts of the world even noticing that you are in mortal need and then doing something to help.

Father Federico Lombardi, the spokesman, told reporters the pope was appealing “to the conscience of all people and every believer,” repeating what he had said July 20 after a similar forced exodus of Christians from Mosul: “May the God of peace create in all an authentic desire for dialogue and reconciliation. Violence is not conquered with violence. Violence is conquered with peace. Let us pray in silence, asking for peace.”

Meanwhile, people were suffering the most extreme measures just to hang onto their lives.

This proved to be a turning point.

Overnight Aug. 6-7 fighters belonging to the Islamic State attacked the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh and other villages in Ninevah province, said Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad. “The Christians, about 100,000, horrified and panicked, fled their villages and houses with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”

In an appeal, the patriarch described the scene as “an exodus, a real ‘via crucis'” or Way of the Cross. “Christians are walking on foot in Iraq’s searing summer heat” toward Iraqi Kurdistan. “They are facing a human catastrophe and risk a real genocide. They need water, food, shelter.”

The central Iraqi government appears incapable of protecting its citizens, the patriarch said, and there is no cooperation or coordination with the regional government.

The Islamic State fighters, he said, are taking advantage of the power vacuum “to impose their rule and terror. There is a need of international support and a professional, well-equipped army. The situation is going from bad to worse.”

That’s an understatement. The situation went from torturous to horrific.

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the former nuncio to Iraq and current prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, said the Islamic State militants are “chasing out thousands of Christians.”

“We are facing a serious humanitarian situation,” Cardinal Filoni told Fides, the congregation’s news agency. “These people have been left to their own devices with a closed border in front of them and they don’t know where to go.”

“The Christians had to abandon everything, even their shoes, and barefoot they were forced toward Iraqi Kurdistan,” a region already overwhelmed with displaced people, the cardinal said.

Relief organizations and some Christian and (few) sympathetic media had been calling on governments and citizens on different continents to intervene in this horrifying crisis. Pope Francis made an urgent appeal when the crisis grew catastrophic late this week, from August 6-7.

Something about the overnight turn of events, something in the Yazidi call for help that made it to the West, reached a US administration well aware of the ISIS problem for about a year. The president referred to that cry for help when he addressed the nation to announce a mission of humanitarian intervention had begun, finally.

The United States has authorized targeted airstrikes and carried out a humanitarian operation in northern Iraq, President Obama said Thursday night.

The aid mission dropped by aircraft 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 meals ready-to-eat to thousands of Iraquis who have been stranded atop a mountain, driven there by attacks from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Obama said he directed the military to “take target strikes” against ISIS to prevent the terrorist group from advancing in Iraq’s city of Erbil and threatening U.S. personnel there. “We plan to stand vigilant and take action if they threaten our facilities anywhere in Iraq, including the consulate in Erbil and embassy in Baghdad,” the president said.

“Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, ‘there is no one coming to help,'” Obama said. “Well, today America is coming to help.”

He added: “We can act, carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”

News media coverage of that address and the aftermath of political analysis was in full swing breathlessly trying to come up to speed with a crisis some of us have been talking about and warning of in blogs and columns and news articles for weeks and months.

They played a sort of parlor game in advance of the president’s appearance Thursday night predicting what he would say and how he would say it. Having little patience for that sort of punditry, I turned the volume back on when Obama appeared…not behind the desk in the Oval Office looking squarely into the camera and addressing the world, as some of my colleagues noted, correctly, but at a podium with the left and right teleprompters he’s so used to and comfortable with, before the assembled world press. He looked and sounded determined and resolute, which is rare outside political campaigning for this president. I was impressed with his deliberation. He talked about “adhering to a set of core principles; to support allies when they’re in danger; to stay true to fundamental values, like human dignity’, which was great to hear. This isn’t the time to apply that to a test. And again he talked about “the dignity of our fellow human beings”, finally.

Secretary of State John Kerry said this about the US mission.

The stakes for Iraq’s future could not be clearer, and today’s crisis underscores the stakes profoundly. ISIL’s campaign of terror against the innocent, including Yezedi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide. For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it. ISIL is not fighting on behalf of Sunnis. ISIL is not fighting for a stronger Iraq. ISIL is fighting to divide and destroy Iraq – and ISIL is offering nothing to anyone except chaos, nihilism, and ruthless thuggery. With a gut-wrenching humanitarian crisis unfolding, and the rolls of the starving and sick growing daily, there’s not a minute to waste. The United States is acting and leading, and the world cannot sit by and watch innocents die. We will continue to coordinate with our allies in the region and the international community to assist Iraqis to confront ISIL’s brutal ideology which poses a severe threat to Iraq, the region, and the United States.

In the news analysis following the president’s address, one military expert expressed this concern about President Obama’s intentions and tolerance for a protracted engagement: “What does he do next, even if he stops genocide? What will he do to stop march of ISIS toward Baghdad?”

That is for tomorrow. For today, the US government finally stepped up to the role of international relief and aid when the balance of the world seemed to be teetering between chaos and some reconstructed form of moral order. Help had arrived, we learned, and we will learn what will come in the days ahead.

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