A Catholic Dunkirk – in reverse

A Catholic Dunkirk – in reverse A boy carries his belongings in Mosul – some Iraqi Christians who are making their slow return to ancestral lands say it will take time to rebuild their lives and trust of those who betrayed them. Photo: CNS

Right now, cinemas are featuring the summer blockbuster Dunkirk, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, about the famous WWII evacuation of trapped Allied troops which most Brits regard as among their finest hours.

That evacuation, in which hundreds of ordinary people joined an impromptu flotilla to bring the troops home, occasioned Winston Churchill’s famed 1940 speech: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Obviously, the WWII-era Dunkirk was a moment of high, world-changing drama, and it deserves to be memorialised. However, there’s an equally dramatic, but as-yet uncelebrated, Dunkirk going on right now before our eyes, in this case a moment of great Catholic heroism.

The difference is, it’s actually a Dunkirk in reverse – the idea isn’t to get people out, but to help them stay. That’s an image I’ve used before, and it remains completely on the money.


Since the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, every religious minority in the region has suffered, with Christians leading the pack because of their numbers and visibility. A variety of international groups, including the US government, has recognized those Christians as victims of “genocide”.

The devastation has been staggering. In Iraq in 2003, there were an estimated 1.5 million Christians, while today the high-end number for those left is usually set at around 300,000. Similarly, Syria’s Christian community is believed to have been cut in half.

Given the lethal violence directed at Christians, as well as the general social and political chaos, the real question probably isn’t why so many have left, but why those brave few have remained. Therein lies the tale of the Catholic “Dunkirk in reverse”.

Essentially, the answer is because private Christian organisations around the world, the lion’s share Catholic, have stepped up for the last five years or so, ensuring those Christians are fed, sheltered, and have access to medical care – and, more importantly, that they have the promise of a better future to come, thereby offering them reason to ride out the storm.

One might think that such a responsibility for humanitarian rescue would fall to the entire world, especially the major Western powers and inter-governmental bodies such as the United Nations. Indeed, the UN and Western governments have invested major resources in Iraq and Syria, but the overwhelming majority has never reached Christian victims of the conflict, and doesn’t to this day.

Here’s why: the bulk of public humanitarian aid in Iraq and Syria is delivered through major refugee camps, either in places such as Erbil, or to camps in Jordan and Lebanon. However, Christians typically don’t go to those camps, fearing infiltration by Jihadist loyalists and thus further exposure to persecution and violence.

As a result, the Christians take refuge with Church institutions – churches, schools, clinics, hospitals, social service centres, even the private homes and properties of other Christians. What that means is that from the beginning, those Christians, numbering in the hundreds of thousands by now, have been basically abandoned by most international relief efforts.

So, who’s giving them food, water, clothes and medicine? Who, in effect, has kept them alive?

To begin with, it’s been the local Churches in Iraq and Syria, who have done absolutely astonishing work in supporting people in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. The bishops, clergy and religious in those two nations are among the most unacknowledged moral heroes of our time. However, they’re far from having deep pockets, so who’s making that heroism possible?

The answer is, “We are”, as in American Catholics. Certainly Catholics, other Christians, and people of good will from all around the world are also involved, but there’s been a special, and remarkable, mobilisation by American Catholic organisations.

Consider the following numbers, which are only representative rather than comprehensive.

Since 2011, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a pontifical organisation serving persecuted Christians, has spent $35.5 (€30.3) million helping Christian refugees in Iraq and Syria, especially those taking shelter in Erbil and elsewhere in Kurdistan. The U.S. branch of ACN has been a major contributor to that effort.


The Knights of Columbus have spent more than $12 (€10.2) million for Christians in Iraq and Syria. The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, another pontifical organisation based in New York, has spent $7.3 (€6.2) million directly on Iraq and Syria since 2014, and another $9.8 (€8.4) million on Christian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.

Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas development arm of the U.S. bishops, doesn’t distinguish among beneficiaries in terms of religious identity. However, since 2012, CRS has poured $250 (€213.2) million into Iraq and Syria, benefitting 1.5 million Syrians and 300,000 Iraqis.

All in, that’s a stunning amount of American Catholic money flowing to help some of the most embattled Christians in the world today.

At the original Dunkirk, some 330,000 Allied troops were rescued. Although exact numbers at this stage are impossible, it’s a slam-dunk certainty that at least that many Christians have been kept alive, were able to remain with their families, and given some hope of better things to come by the current “Dunkirk in reverse”.

Fear for the future, however, hasn’t disappeared. I spoke this week to Fr Andrzej Halemba of ACN, which is spearheading a major effort called the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project, designed to rebuild houses and other facilities destroyed by ISIS to allow Christians in Iraq to return to their village homes.

“The Christians ask me, Father, is our future going to be like Turkey?” he said. The reference is to the fact that in 1915, Christians were almost one-quarter of the population in Turkey, but today it’s around 0.2%, principally the result of the Armenian Genocide.

To avoid that result, the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project aims to generate $250 (€213.2) million to rebuild the roughly 13,000 private homes that were burned, destroyed or partially damaged. ACN has already rebuilt 100 homes, and, in the meantime, is caring for the roughly 12,000 other families, or some 95,000 people, waiting to go back.

Eventually, the idea is also to rebuild the 363 church properties that were also burned, damaged or destroyed, not to mention thoroughly looted.

A survey conducted by Aid to the Church in Need in February found 41% of displaced Christian families today want to return, and another 46% are considering doing so. That’s a reflection of military defeats for ISIS, of course, but also to the commitment of Aid to the Church in Need and other groups in providing these people a reason to believe they’re not alone.

Fr Halemba stressed, by the way, that the Christians of Iraq aren’t “beggars”.

“We don’t need foreign companies to come build houses,” he said. “The people are industrious and qualified. We’ve got carpenters, engineers, masons, and others, ready to work.

“This is about restoring dignity and giving hope to the citizens of the Nineveh Plains, and at the same time giving them salaries,” he said.

Fr Halemba called for a “great appeal” in support of the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project “to save the cradle of Christianity”.

It’s a drama that lends itself to celluloid. It’s also one that calls for vigorous effort to bring the story to conclusion, so that the final scene isn’t leaving anybody on the beach.

John Allen Jr is editor of Cruxnow.com