A Lifeline for Persecuted Christians
How the Knights of Columbus has supported persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East
As Islamic State militants swept across northern Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, the future of Christianity in the Middle East hung in the balance. ISIS systematically targeted Christians and other religious minorities for genocide, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more fleeing for their lives.
The Knights of Columbus responded by establishing the Christian Refugee Relief Fund in order to provide humanitarian assistance in cooperation with local Church leaders and other allies. In addition to committing more than $20 million in aid, the Order has also conducted campaigns to promote prayer and raise awareness, and it has successfully advanced public policy in defense of victims of religious persecution.
The timeline that follows provides a summary of some of the many ways that the Knights of Columbus has aided vulnerable communities in the Middle East during this critical time.
Aug. 11 — With an initial $500,000 and pledging to match an additional $500,000 in donations from the public, the Knights of Columbus announces the establishment of the Christian Refugee Relief Fund to aid those suffering religious persecution in Iraq and elsewhere.
“The unprovoked and systematic persecution and violent elimination of Middle East Christians, as well as other minority groups, especially in Iraq, has created an enormous humanitarian crisis,” states then-Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson. “Pope Francis has asked the world for prayers and support for those affected by this terrible persecution, and we are asking our members, and all people of good will, to pray for those persecuted and to support efforts to assist them by donating to this fund.”
Sept. 9 — Within weeks, the Order raises more than $2 million in donations and urges Knights and their families, as well as others, to recite the “Prayer for Those Persecuted in Iraq,” written by Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori.
Sept. 26 — Melkite Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, delivers an impassioned address at Fordham University in New York, detailing the persecution of his people.
“When we consider innocent Christian victims,” he says, “we can speak without exaggeration of several hundred dead, many of them martyrs.”
Columbia reprints an adapted version of the speech in its December 2014 issue.
October — The Knights of Columbus begins sending financial assistance to the Melkite Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo.
November — The Order donates more than $2 million to the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq, to provide food, shelter and emergency medical service to thousands of internally displaced persons under its care.
Dec. 12 — Pope Francis meets with Supreme Knight Anderson, who presents the Holy Father with $400,000 to supplement the Vatican’s efforts in the Middle East.
March 24 — Members of Holy Redeemer Council 9544 in Kanata, Ontario, welcome a Melkite Greek Catholic family that was forced to flee the ancient city of Daraa, Syria. Council 9544, together with other K of C councils and Catholic parishes, have since welcomed and assisted other refugee families as well.
July — The Order begins support of St. Elizabeth University’s Project for Iraq in Need (STEP-IN), a medical initiative that serves displaced Iraqis targeted for genocide. The Slovakian-based project includes a clinic in Erbil named for Blessed Zdenka Schelingová and a mobile clinic in Duhok named for Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko (see more on page 23).
July 25 — A Knights of Columbus-produced commercial on the plight of Christians and other persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East begins airing across the United States as part of a national campaign to raise funds and awareness.
August — The Order sends additional aid to the Archdiocese of Aleppo, which provides humanitarian assistance to Christian families wanting to remain in their country.
Aug. 4 — During his annual report at the 133rd Supreme Convention in Philadelphia, Supreme Knight Anderson invites delegates to stand with him in solidarity for persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria, raising olivewood crosses and reciting together a prayer for those suffering.
“The blood of these martyrs cries out to you and me for help,” he said. “It is time for a season of truth about what is happening to Christians and other minorities.
In the months that follow, the Supreme Council would initiate the Solidarity Cross Program — inviting K of C units to purchase 5-inch olivewood crosses made by Christian artisans in the Holy Land for distribution in their parishes and communities for a suggested donation of $10 per cross, with net proceeds going to the Christian Refugee Relief Fund. To date, more than 63,000 crosses have been distributed, raising nearly $400,000.
Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil and Archbishop Jeanbart of Aleppo each deliver keynote addresses at the Supreme Convention States Dinner.
“Churches and holy places where people had worshipped for centuries have now been destroyed and desecrated, the Holy Cross replaced by the flag of Daesh (ISIS),” recounts Archbishop Warda. “Many of these families fled to the relative safety of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where they wonder how their lives can go forward. These people are in our care, yours and mine.”
Archbishop Jeanbart similarly speaks of the plight of displaced Christians in Syria, adding, “By God’s grace and with the help of organizations like yours, we have been able to respond, in a significant way, to a good part of the humanitarian needs of our people.”
September — The Knights of Columbus finances the delivery of one month’s supply of food to more than 13,500 refugee families in Erbil.
Sept. 11 — At the second annual Solidarity Dinner of the In Defense of Christians National Leadership Convention in Washington, D.C., Supreme Knight Anderson delivers a keynote address. “You and I know the truth about what is happening to Christians in the Middle East,” he says, noting that Pope Francis used the term “genocide” in relation to Christians and other minority communities in Iraq and Syria.
The dinner concludes three days of intense media and advocacy work by the Knights and conference participants. On Sept. 10, participants visited some 300 congressional offices, urging members of Congress to vote for H. Con. Res. 75, a bill introduced the previous day by U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) that would designate the Islamic State’s actions in the region as genocide.
October — A 15-year-old Chaldean Catholic girl from Iraq named Katreena recovers at the residence of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Enfield, Conn., after receiving treatment at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. Injured while fleeing from ISIS with her family in 2014, she was able to travel to the United States for medical care thanks to the Knights’ support.
November — The Order donates to Catholic Relief Services, sponsoring the Church’s efforts to educate Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Jordan.
Dec. 9 — Supreme Knight Anderson delivers testimony during a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., on “Fulfilling the Humanitarian Imperative: Assisting Victims of ISIS Violence.” He implores the U.S. State Department to “publicly acknowledge that genocide is taking place against the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria.”
January — The Christian Refugee Relief Fund exceeds $5 million in total donations.
March 9 — The Knights of Columbus, in cooperation with In Defense of Christians, submits a major report titled Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East to the U.S. State Department. The 280-page report presents comprehensive evidence that Christians in territories controlled by ISIS have been killed, kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery, driven from their homes and dispossessed. It also includes interviews with witnesses of such atrocities collected during a recent K of C fact-finding mission to Iraq.
The following day, the report is made public at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where Supreme Knight Anderson is joined by Coptic Orthodox Bishop Anba Angaelos of the United Kingdom; Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom; Prof. Robert Destro of The Catholic University of America; and Father Douglas Bazi, among others.
March 17 — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declares that Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East face genocide at the hands of ISIS. Supreme Knight Anderson applauds the designation as “correct and truly historic.”
April 19 — At a Congressional hearing titled “Confronting the Genocide of Religious Minorities: A Way Forward,” Supreme Knight Anderson underscores policy recommendations such as assisting genocide survivors who wish to come to the United States and ensuring stability for minorities who remain in the Middle East.
Nine days later, he delivers an address at a U.N. conference titled “Defending Religious Freedom and Other Human Rights: Stopping Mass Atrocities Against Christians and Other Believers.” Other speakers at the conference, organized by the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations, include Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University and a member of Potomac Council 433 in Washington, D.C.; and Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean Catholic priest who was kidnapped and tortured by Islamist extremists before running a refugee center in Erbil.
May 1 — Archbishop Jeanbart of Aleppo delivers an address to more than 350 people at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., the birthplace of the Order. He urges his listeners “to help and to save” the Christians in Syria, who “have been living for 2,000 years among hardships, difficulties and persecutions.”
The following day, Archbishop Jeanbart and the supreme knight hold a joint press conference at the Knights of Columbus headquarters.
May 26 — Supreme Knight Anderson testifies before members of Congress at a hearing titled “The ISIS Genocide Declaration: What Next?”
The supreme knight’s testimony would become the basis for the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017, or H.R. 390.
June — The Christian Refugee Relief Fund exceeds $10 million in donations.
Aug. 2 — Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch, a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus, delivers an address on the dire situation for Christians in the Middle East during the opening business session at the 134th Supreme Convention in Toronto.
“Our Churches go back to the first Christian communities, in their liturgy, traditions, culture and language,” he says. “They are now a kind of endangered species that could be wiped out for good!”
Aug. 3 — At a press conference during the Supreme Convention, Patriarch Younan, Archbishop Jeanbart and Archbishop Warda speak about the ongoing suffering and needs of their people.
“If Christian families can live in a dignified way through programs like education, shelter, food and health, then we will be able really to keep our community alive,” Archbishop Warda explains. “Thanks to support from the Knights of Columbus, we are closing some camps and moving families to decent housing.”
Sept. 8 — At the third annual In Defense of Christians Solidarity Dinner in Washington, D.C., Supreme Knight Anderson receives the IDC Lifetime Achievement Award for his and the Order’s work on behalf of Christians and other persecuted minorities.
Sept. 22 — Supreme Knight Anderson testifies before the U.S. Helsinki Commission on Capitol Hill at a hearing titled “Atrocities in Iraq and Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators,” convened by commission chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). Anderson calls on the U.S. government to deliver aid directly to Christian and other minority communities who are victims of genocide in Iraq and Syria.
Oct. 12 — The Path to Peace Foundation honors the Knights of Columbus and Supreme Knight Anderson with the 2016 Path to Peace Award “for their direct assistance to the victims of violence in the Middle East and their effective advocacy for the recognition of the persecution of Christians and other ethnic and religious minority groups there as genocide.
December — Following the Dec. 11 bombing by an Islamic State militant of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral complex in Cairo, Egypt, which killed 29 people during Mass, the Supreme Council sends support for the families of victims.
March 24 — The Benedict Leadership Institute at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C., presents Supreme Knight Anderson with the inaugural Benedict Leadership Award for the Order’s work on behalf of persecuted Christians.
“It is our hope that your award will bring attention and relief to persecuted Christians and move the public to act more decisively in their behalf,” states Conor Gallagher, the institute’s executive director.
April — After the bombing of two Coptic Christian churches by Islamic State militants that killed at least 47 people and wounded more than 100 in Egypt on Palm Sunday, April 9, the Order distributes $100,000 to support relief efforts.
Aug. 1 — During his annual report at the 135th Supreme Convention in St. Louis, Supreme Knight Anderson announces that the Knights of Columbus will fund the resettlement and restoration of Karamles, an ancient Christian town in Iraq. The Knights of Columbus Board of Directors set a $2 million fundraising goal, which would help 1,000 families to return.
The supreme knight also announces that the Knights of Columbus and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will co-sponsor a Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians on Nov. 26, followed by a Week of Awareness and Education.
Oct. 12 — Supreme Knight Anderson participates in the first government-sponsored conference on Christian persecution in Budapest, Hungary, titled “International Consultation on the Persecution of Christians — Finding the Appropriate Answers to a Long Neglected Crisis.” The Hungarian government donated $2 million in May 2017 to rebuild the predominantly Christian town of Teleskof, Iraq.
Oct. 24 — By alerting the U.S. government of a developing territorial dispute in Teleskof, the Knights of Columbus is instrumental in helping de-escalate a potentially devastating armed conflict between Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Oct. 25 — The supreme knight introduces U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the fourth annual In Defense of Christians Solidarity Dinner in Washington, D.C. The vice president pledges that the U.S. government will provide aid to suffering Christians in the Middle East and singles out the Knights of Columbus for “extraordinary work caring for the persecuted around the world.”
Nov. 11 — In recognition of the work of the Knights of Columbus to end the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, the Custody of the Holy Land, led by Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, presents Supreme Knight Anderson with its Grato Animo Award at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.
Nov. 26-Dec. 2 — The Knights of Columbus joins the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other Catholic groups in sponsoring a Week of Awareness for Persecuted Christians.
Events include a press conference with Archbishop Warda of Erbil and other leaders at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Nov. 27; a Mass celebrated Nov. 28 by Archbishop Warda at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., in memory of the victims of genocide; and a Nov. 30 conference cosponsored by the Knights and the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
December — In time for Christmas, the Order provides a 30-day supply of food to 12,000 displaced or formerly displaced Christian families in Erbil.
March 9-10 — St. John the Baptist Parish Council 10305 in Fort Calhoun, Neb., hosts a “Rebuilding the Cradle of Christianity” event in Omaha to raise awareness as well as funds to support the K of C effort to rebuild Karamles. Coordinated by Supreme Director Mike Conrad, the event welcomed Syriac Catholic Bishop Barnaba Yousif Benham Habash, among other speakers, and raised $163,000 to help rebuild more than 80 homes for Christians in Iraq.
March — During Holy Week, the Order provides funds to support several initiatives: the Archdiocese of Erbil’s food program for internally displaced communities; programs run by the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate based in Lebanon for some 3,000 refugee families from Iraq and Syria, who are in need of food, clothing, shelter and access to education and medical care; and the ongoing commitment to rebuild and resettle the town of Karamles.
April 15 — At St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford celebrates a Mass for persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Bishop Bawai Soro of the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of Mar Addai of Toronto, a native of Iraq, delivers the homily and speaks after the Mass, which concludes a prayer, education and fundraising initiative among local Catholic high schools.
Aug. 7 — At the 136th Supreme Convention in Baltimore, the Knights of Columbus commits to complete the construction of McGivney House, a 140-unit apartment building in Erbil that will provide housing for both Syriac and Chaldean families.
A new pilgrim icon titled “Our Lady Help of Persecuted Christians” is blessed at Mass the following day, inaugurating the Order’s 18th Marian Prayer Program.
Oct. 12 – The Knights agrees in a memorandum of understanding with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to cooperate in assisting religious minorities in the Middle East rebuild their communities following the persecution and genocide of ISIS.
Nov. 28 – The U.S. Congress passes H.R. 390, known as the “Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018.” The bipartisan legislation written by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and co-sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), will provide humanitarian relief for victims of genocide in Iraq and Syria, while holding ISIS perpetrators accountable.
The supreme knight applauds its passage saying it “makes clear that those targeted for genocide by ISIS should be included in American government assistance in the region.
Dec. 11 – President Donald Trump signs H.R. 390, making the “Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018, law. The legislations authorized the “financial and technical” assistance for “humanitarian, stabilization, and recovery needs” for former and current religious minority residents of Iraq and Syria.
This assistance could come through the federal government or through entities, including faith-based entities that are providing support to address the recovery.
In addition, the legislation allows the State Department — in collaboration with other federal agencies — to conduct criminal investigations and apprehend individuals identified as alleged ISIS members, and identify warning signs of genocide and threats of persecution.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson praised the legislation and was present at the Oval Office ceremony along with Vice President Mike Pence, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich, Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil along with religious leaders.
“Today shows the best of America,” Supreme Knight Anderson said. “Today, America gives hope to those who have endured horrific atrocities and persecution in Iraq and Syria. It gives the force of law to what we know is right. Vulnerable and suffering communities should be helped, the guilty should be brought to justice and future genocide should be prevented.”
March — Supreme Knight Anderson visits Iraq at the invitation of Archbishop Warda of Erbil to review the Order’s work in support of Christian and other communities targeted for genocide by ISIS. He meets with U.S. and Kurdish government officials to discuss the issues with senior Church leaders including Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Najib Mikhael Moussa of Mosul, Bishop Mikha Pola Maqdassi of Alqosh, Syriac Orthodox bishop Mor Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf of Mosul, Father Samer Sorish and Father Thabet Habib Yousif.
Supreme Knight Anderson visits McGivney House, where Archbishop Warda blesses an image of Father Michael McGivney and hangs it in the facility’s chapel.
In wake of the visit, the Knights of Columbus announces it will spend $3 million in direct funding for humanitarian programs in Iraq. An additional $2.5 million in co-funding is anticipated for a total of $5.5 million. Supreme Knight Anderson also announces that the Order will fund several additional projects, including:
• The reconstruction of the Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Qaraqosh (Nineveh).
• Additional reconstruction in the town of Karamles for the Chaldean Archdiocese of Mosul.
• A Property Rights Center at the Catholic University of Erbil.
• Restoration of Christian cemeteries destroyed by ISIS in Nineveh.
• STEP-IN clinics in Erbil and Dohuk, which focus especially on displaced Yazidis.
• The needs of Syriac refugees and Internally Displaced People in Lebanon and Syria.
• Unexploded ordnance and landmine abatement in Northeast Syria.
• The establishment of a human rights and religious freedom observatory at the Catholic University of Erbil, which will make use of high-tech mapping from the University of New Haven to document atrocities and create an alert system to help prevent future genocide.
April 11 — Supreme Knight Anderson writes a op-ed — “The Next Big Threat to Iraq’s Christians” — for the Wall Street Journal, about how Iran-backed militias are keeping minority groups from returning home after ISIS.
July — Supreme Knight Anderson speaks at the U.S. Department of State Ministerial on Religious Freedom, presided over by Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The second ministerial gathering on religious freedom included religious and civic leaders from 106 nations. “We stand at a critical juncture,” he said in his address at the State Department in Washington, D.C. “If the destruction of these communities is completed, Baghdad will bear responsibility for the loss of its minorities.”
Nov. 14 — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Knights of Columbus send a letter of solidarity to the people of Lebanon and Iraq, addressing the recent unrest and protests in those countries, joining Pope Francis in “calling on the Iraqi government to ‘listen to the cry of the people who are asking for a dignified and peaceful life,’ especially in light of the attacks on protesters that have killed hundreds in recent weeks.”
The letter is signed by Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Services, USA, in his capacity as chairman of the USCCB Committee for International Justice and Peace, and by Supreme Knight Anderson.
December — Through funding provided by the Knights of Columbus and work of the Archdiocese of Erbil, the lights turn on at McGivney House for refugees to have a home for Christmas.
The Order also provides safety for persecuted communities by funding a joint initiative with the International Trust Fund of Slovenia and the Austrian Government for landmine removal in northeast Syria.
Aug. 4 — At the 138th Supreme Convention, Supreme Knight Anderson announces that the Knights of Columbus will launch a new initiative to report on the situation in Nigeria, similar to what was done in Iraq, in the hope that greater attention by American diplomacy and humanitarian aide can make a difference there.
Aug. 25 — The Knights of Columbus sends $250,000 for disaster relief to Lebanon in the wake of a devastating explosion in Beirut that killed at least 178 people and injured 6,000. The Knights’ gift is conveyed through Bishop Gregory Mansour, who leads the Maronite Eparchy (diocese) of St. Maron of Brooklyn, NY. It will include: $125,000 for Caritas Lebanon; $50,000 to the St. Vincent de Paul Society; $50,000 for Telelumiere/Noursat Christian Television in the Middle East; and $25,000 for Sesobel, which serves children with special needs and their families.
“This is a great tragedy that merits the prayers and full attention of the world,” Supreme Knight Anderson said. “The calamity in Lebanon is a threat to the vital Christian community there and threatens the existence of Christianity throughout the Middle East. This desperate situation must be addressed.”
Dec. 16 — The Knights of Columbus issues a statement strongly supporting the U.S. State Department’s decision to list Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” under the Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Announced on December 7, this action recognizes that Nigeria is engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”
(Picture: In September 2015, the Knights of Columbus financed the delivery of one month’s supply of food to more than 13,500 refugee families in Erbil. Photo by Stivan Shany)