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Iraq. Nissan (Caritas): “The helping hand extended by the Catholic Church to our Country”  

Iraq is slowly recovering. Yet “poverty, internally displaced persons, political instability, the presence of paramilitary militias, sectarianism, widespread corruption and excessive red-tape that slows everything down”, remain a heavy burden. This is Iraq today in the words of the Director of Caritas Iraq, Nabil Nissan. The fundamentalist mindset instilled by Isis is yet to be overcome. The visit of Pope Francis, announced for 2020, rekindles hope

The annual meeting of the partners of Caritas Iraq took place in Baghdad from 1 to 3 July last. Delegates from various European Caritas (Italy, Belgium, Spain and Germany) and CRS (Catholic Relief Services, USA), attended the conference promoted by Caritas Internationalis.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the present situation in the Country, notably with regard to the Christian community, with an overview of relief programmes implemented by Caritas Iraq. The delegation, received by local institutions officers, inspected some of the programmes put in place in Falluja and Ramadi, the capital of the governorate of Al Anbar. Local institutions congratulated the efforts of Caritas Iraq in support of the local population and voiced the hope that

“the visit of Pope Francis, announced for 2020, may contribute to pacification and to ever stronger internal stability.”

SIR met Nabil Nissan, Director of Caritas Iraq for the past 11 years, on the sidelines of the meeting in the Iraqi capital.

Director, could you tell us about the commitment of Caritas Iraq for the Iraqi population and the purpose of this visit?
Caritas Iraq was created in 1992 on the initiative of Catholic bishops in the Country to address the situation of emergency caused by the near-total financial embargo imposed by the UN that same year. Our values encompass the respect for human dignity, the quest for the common good, the preferential option for the poor, solidarity, equality and justice.

We are committed to improving living conditions, saving lives and promoting new social communities, devoid of all forms of violence, exclusion and discrimination. 

Our activities are carried out throughout the Country with 21 structures from Zakho and Duhok to the north, descending into the Nineveh Plain (Alqosh, Qaraqosh and Tel Uskuf), to Baghdad, Falluja, Saqlawia. Each year we provide psychological counselling to 2,000 mothers traumatized by the war and by Isis, we offer health assistance to over 12,000 people, we provide health care to 3,000 families, and education to 6,000 children. We have restored 2,000 damaged homes, and donated 380 caravans for emergency housing, we distributed 100,000 food parcels totalling over 200,000 beneficiaries. We implemented programmes for internally displaced people living in the camps of Amryat, Falluja, Baghdad and Anbar. We are continuing our work with the support of our partner Caritas, including Caritas Italy. This requires ever greater commitment.

Have there been improvements in the internal situation of Iraq now that ISIS has been defeated?
“The situation is slowly improving, especially since the end of ISIS occupation. We see a growing sense of belonging to the nation, of citizenship, of social coexistence, which we feared had been lost forever. We are experiencing a period of pacification although we have not yet reached the point of lasting peace. However, many problems still remain on the table: poverty, political instability, the presence of paramilitary militias (who fought the Isis, ed.’s note.), and red tape that slows down everything.

Numbers are appalling: unemployment stands at 22%, affecting young people in particular. In Iraq there are 1.7 million internally displaced persons, 3 million disabled people, 1.5 million orphans, more than 1 million divorced women.

Notably, corruption and sectarianism are reason for concern:  if I had a magic wand (he laughs) I’d make them disappear.

These problems have been dragging on in Iraq after decades of war, worsened by the invasion of ISIS. Which scars has the Islamic State left on Iraqi citizens?

The marks can be seen on their minds and bodies.

Isis has instilled into the minds of Iraqi people a fundamentalist mentality aimed at annihilating their fellow other.

Isis is not only made up of people. It’s also an ideology, a mentality that must be eradicated. In order to counter it as Caritas, we brought about a change in our mission. In fact, prior to Isis we were focused on the material aspects of poverty. Since the inception of ISIS we started to realize that the problem we had to address was the reconstruction of the human person. Hence we decided to promote psychological and social support programmes for the most vulnerable, starting with children. This is one of the reasons why we are present in the camps for displaced persons in Anbar, in Falluja hosting men, women, boys, children and elderly people subjected to ISIS ideology during the forced occupation.

You mentioned sectarianism. To what extent does it impact the life of minority groups in the Country- that includes the small Christian community? Sectarianism is like still-burning embers artfully rekindled for political purposes. This has always happened in Iraq and it’s a problem that must be solved by political leaders.

Also the emergency of internally displaced persons – 1.7 million – is a political problem. How can it be solved?
It’s a problem that should be addressed with long-term planning, extending beyond the emergency phase. There are many people that cannot return to their homes because they were destroyed, because they have legal disputes with the Iraqi State and especially because the economy of entire regions has plummeted.

Caritas Iraq estimated that 60% of 1.7 million displaced persons have no intention whatsoever to return because they are afraid.  

In the medium and long term a segment of the population will continue depending on humanitarian aid. Civil society must put pressure on the political world to find long-term solutions to this problem.

What is the role of Christians in the present stage of pacification?
It’s the role carried out by Caritas: to assist, without distinctions,  all those in need and in doing so bear witness to Jesus Christ. Our faith has guided us to the displaced people of Anbar. In a context like ours, the Church has no possibility of proclaiming the Gospel except through the witness of charity. In this way we make the message of Christ visible to Muslims. We brought the Cross back to Fallujah. People now have the opportunity to see who we are and why we are there among them to live out works of charity.

We are a minority but if we only live among ourselves we will be stifled.

By opening ourselves up to the whole of society, we can breathe too. We are being called to build bridges.

Is this also why many young volunteers of Caritas Iraq are Muslim?

Certainly. But it should also be said that in Iraq many youths are unemployed. One of our priorities is youth education. We have therefore decided to include several young people in our activities so they may breathe the spirit of Caritas.

Pope Francis announced his desire to visit Iraq in 2020. What does this pastoral visit mean for your Country?
This visit is an important message for the whole of Iraq. And

The message is: we need bridges and openness.  

Christians are always those who make the first step towards the other. The Pope will arrive to remind all Iraqis that Christians are those who extend a helping hand to their fellow other. It’s his message to Iraq and to the whole region. He will give comfort to Christians. Seeing the head of the universal Church cherishing Iraq in his heart gives us the courage and the strength to progress in our mission.

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