Slovakia is welcoming 25 Christian families from Iraq, saving 149 people, including 62 children, from the atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State (IS).
The rescue operation was made possible thanks to the devotion of Joseph and Michele Assad, former U.S. counter-terrorism officers, who involved Aron Shaviv, an international political strategist, founder and CEO of Shaviv Strategy and Campaigns, and Michal Repa, a senior consultant in the same company, to negotiate with potential host states.
It was in August 2014, when IS invaded the city of Qaraqosh, that tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fled their homes to join nearby refugee camps. 550 of them found temporary refuge at the Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, Iraq. There, only 50 km away from the ISIS controlled territories, the priest of Mar Elia Church, Father Douglas Bazi, started to liaise with the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in an attempt to save his community from the terrorist threat.
Contacted by the Hudson Institute, the Assads undertook months of security vetting to make sure these people were an integral part to the Christian community of Iraq and represented no threat whatsoever to their future host country.
After the Paris attacks, Europeans become afraid of terrorists arriving in Europe under the false identity of refugees. Therefore, it was of particular importance to the parties involved in this evacuation to conduct security checks. Interviews were carried out, birth certificates, marriage and baptism documents were collected from everyone of the 149 people.
Despite the risky plan of getting the refugees out of Iraq and finding a country that would grant them asylum, the Assads believed it was their duty to save these families, in the same way in which their own families had been saved from religious persecutions in Egypt. They said “it’s about giving these people a chance, like somebody gave us a chance”.
Between negotiating with states, vetting the refugees, gathering visas, arranging flights, busses and other logistics, it wasn’t easy to organise their evacuation from this war zone, but it was definitely worth it.
“We are rescuing people that are the most vulnerable, and Christians happen to be part of this group. Muslims can turn to other Muslim countries. Christians are having a much harder time resettling in some of these Arab countries.” said Joseph Assad.
Because these Christian refugees want to be integrated into the Slovak society that has taken them in, Glenn Beck’s charity and Mercury One’s Nazarene Fund, raised more than $12 million for resettlement efforts. For about 3 years, they will be able to learn Slovak, be trained for jobs and overcome all the major obstacles of integration refugees are usually faced with.
At the moment, the 25 refugee families are living in a reception center in Slovakia, where they will have to undergo security clearance and relatively complex medical checks in order to eliminate any health risks. After at least 6 weeks, they will finally be granted asylum in the country and start the integration program.
However, the fact that these 149 refugees are Christian determined their acceptance into Slovakia. Strongly reluctant to the relocation of refugees among European states, Robert Fico, the Slovak Prime Minister, said the state would accept only 200 refugees.
Moreover, Fico said on several occasions that Slovakia was ready to accept only Christian refugees. In the wake of the sexual assaults that took place in Cologne on New Year’s eve, the prime minister reiterated his vow to fight against Muslim immigration because he said “it’s impossible to integrate Muslims as they have diametrically opposed values and ways of life as well as a different relationship to women”.
While the very real threat of religious persecution by the Islamic State does not preclude countries from prioritizing assistance to higher-risk groups like those of Christian religion, commenting on Fico’s statement (which was more broad and of a different tone) the European Commission said the principle of non-discrimination is at the core of the EU legislation.
Asked about whether other groups of high-risk refugees could follow this model for finding a host country, Aron Shaviv told New Europe:
“The lesson other groups can take away is to be mindful to the very real concerns of the adoptive country. In this case the community comes with comprehensive security clearance with full transparency and an eagerness to integrate and become productive members of their new community and home.”
Furthermore, Shaviv explained that organisations like his own can facilitate this kind of work:
“The lion-share of the credit for this project goes to Joseph and Michel Assad, who selflessly put themselves in danger’s way to help others. My team played a supportive role on the government-relations side, first and foremost Michal Repa, a senior member of our team. This is not a business venture for us, all of our work on this has been pro-bono.”
When contacted by New Europe, the Interior ministry spokesman, Ivan Netik, said
“the Christian refugees from Qaraqosh are Assyrian Christians who speak the original Aramaic language, used also by Jesus Christ. Since Slovakia is Christian country, they decided to start a new life in this European country. With the help of the Conference of Slovak Bishops and NGOs, Slovakia hopes that this integration process will be easy and quick.”
The spokesman added that “for now the Slovak government isn’t prepared to welcome more refugees since they first have to wait for the results of this integration program”.
Similar views have also been heard from neighbouring Hungary and Poland. Like Slovakia, the Hungarian government also intends to challenge mandatory EU quotas in court, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban repeatedly claiming that the influx of refugees into Europe threatens to undermine the continent’s Christian roots.
Nevertheless, when contacted by New Europe, the Hungarian ambassador in Brussels, Zoltán Nagy, made it very clear that the decision to accept refugees in his country was not made on religious ground. He believes it is the sovereign power of Slovakia to decide who to grant asylum to and thinks that the more refugees acquire similar values and attributes of the host country, the better they will integrate.
Last week Poland announced that in 2016 it will accept only 400 refugees coming from Muslim countries, saying the attacks in the French capital had ‘changed the situation’. After several contacts with the Polish embassy, the state refrained to make a comment on this Slovak initiative, which can be seen as a success story.