January 12, 2015
BARB FRAZE
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

The story of the Middle East in 2014 is one of war and displacement, broken families, tireless aid workers, and the rise of a new group one scholar referred to as "al-Qaida on steroids."

It's a story of populations stretched to the limit, but still welcoming more refugees as neighbours. And it's a tale of religious leaders calling for prayer, meeting for dialogue and urging an end to the violence.

The continuing civil war in Syria created what Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called "the defining humanitarian challenge of our times." His agency estimated in December that more than 3.3 million Syrian refugees live in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

UNHCR also estimated that, within Syria, 12.2 million people are in need.

Amid the migration of Syrians to neighbouring countries, a group calling itself the Islamic State began driving Christians, Yezidis and even Muslim minorities from parts of Syria and Iraq.

CONVERT OR BE KILLED

The minorities told stories of the Islamic State cutting off electricity for weeks ahead of the troops' arrival. When the militants arrived, minorities were told to convert to Islam, pay a protection tax or be killed.

Mary Habeck, associate professor in strategic studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said the Islamic State, and its parent group, al-Qaida, are "a very tiny group of extremists that have decided that they understand what Islam is, and they are going to force the rest of the Muslim-majority world in their direction."

After capturing Mosul, Iraq, in June, the Islamic State group declared a caliphate, or Islamic empire. Habeck said the group views itself as "the only legitimate government in the entire world."

Faced with the choice of renouncing their faith or being killed, hundreds of thousands of Christians and other minorities in Iraq's Ninevah province fled Mosul to places like Qaraqosh.

Later, as Islamic State fighters advanced, the minorities fled again to cities like Irbil, Iraq, where they slept in churches, tents in parks and on the streets.

HUGE CHALLENGES

The mass migration of Syrians and Iraqis – combined with Palestinians left homeless after a 50-day Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, created a huge challenge for aid organizations, including those run by the Catholic Church.

Most refugees in the Middle East do not live in camps, but in local communities. This placed a strain on the host countries.

Lebanon has a population of four million and hosted 1.5 million refugees. Jordan, with a population of 6.5 million, recognized 44 different nationalities as refugees.

Although the Jordanian government welcomed those fleeing, it says 30 per cent of any aid going to help Syrian refugees must help the host community.

Christian aid agencies tried to coordinate their work: One agency might help with mattresses and personal items, another with education.

Once the Iraqis and Syrians fled, they hoped for resettlement in another country. One refugee described waiting for resettlement as "miserable days doing nothing."