The Knights of Columbus on Tuesday announced it will raise and donate $2 million to re-settle Iraqi Christian families displaced by the Islamic State in their home town of Karemlesh on the Nineveh Plain.
“The terrorists desecrated churches and graves and looted and destroyed homes,” Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, said in his Aug. 1 remarks announcing the $2 million project. “Now we will ensure that hundreds of Christian families driven from their homes can return to these two locations and help to ensure a pluralistic future for Iraq,” he said.
In order for Iraq to have such a future, he said Christians must be treated as “free and equal citizens” and not suffer the “religious apartheid” of previous years.
Anderson addressed the 135th annual convention of the Knights of Columbus held in St. Louis, Mo. Aug.1-3. 90 bishops and 12 cardinals were present, along with Knights councils from all over the world. The Knights of Columbus is an international Catholic men’s organization founded, in Anderson’s words, to “strengthen the faith of Catholic men” and “protect their families.” Over 1.9 million are members of the organization, founded in 1882 by Venerable Fr. Michael J. McGivney.
The four pillars of the organization are charity, unity, fraternity, and patriotism. An international aid organization as well, the Knights’ Christian Refugee Relief Fund has provided over $13 million in aid to persecuted Christians since 2014, mostly in Iraq and Syria.
In 2014, forces of the Islamic State overran large swathes of Syria and Iraq, killing or displacing many Christian families. The group has since been forced back, losing much of its territory, including the Nineveh Plain where many Christians lived. Around 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003, but that number has fallen to below an estimated 250,000. The situation for Iraqi Christians is so dire, Anderson said, that “without substantial assistance” in the next two months, many of them might leave Iraq for good.
Christians have lived in the area for centuries, tracing their communities back to almost the beginning of Christianity. Some speak Aramaic, the language Jesus would have spoken, and various ancient shrines existed in the region, including the tomb of the prophet Jonah which was destroyed by Islamic State.
“These Christian communities are a priceless treasure for the Church and for humanity,” Anderson said on Tuesday. He called the Knights’ drive to raise money for them a “concrete step” to aid the beleaguered Christians. The amount of $2 million would also match the donation of the government of Hungary, which has helped resettle around 1,000 families in the Iraqi village of Telskuf.
The Knights will partner with the Chaldean Archeparchy of Erbil to help rebuild Karemlesh, which is just 18 miles east of Mosul. Anderson said that while the town was controlled by Islamic State, homes were vandalized or destroyed and churches were desecrated. “We will give them and many others hope for the future,” he said.
The Knights will also partner with the U.S. bishops' conference to sponsor a national day of prayer and a “week of awareness” for persecuted Christians, starting Nov. 26.
Those wishing to make a tax-deductible donation to the project for Karemlesh can do so at www.ChristiansAtRisk.org, or by phone at 1-800-694-5713. 100 percent of the donations will go to the project.
In his annual address, Anderson noted other work the Knights had accomplished, including more than $177 million in donations and over 75 million volunteer hours. Local Knights councils had responded to various disasters and tragedies, including providing drinking water and sandbags to families in Louisiana after over 60,000 homes had been flooded by record rainfall, Anderson said. The Knights provided more than $100,000 in emergency relief after Hurricane Matthew caused hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage in the Caribbean and the United States.
The Knights also worked to provide for the spiritual life of families, he said, as the family which Fr. McGivney grew up in “was a true domestic Church.” He said that Knights councils had organized pilgrimages in various dioceses for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and had introduced a spiritual program for men based on a pastoral letter by Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, “Into the Breach.” Knights had also organized “Warriors to Lourdes” pilgrimages, taking wounded veteran soldiers to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes for healing.
Anderson called the Knights to stand against the “polite persecution” of secular society, quoting Pope Francis.