An unusual and touching human-interest story broke in The Times of Israel on July 16, recounting the remarkable efforts of a Holocaust survivor who has pledged himself to rescue 2,000 Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria and to relocate them in Poland.
Lord George Weidenfeld, the Christian refugees’ benefactor, is a 95-year-old British publisher and peer of the realm. But he is far more than just a successful businessman.
In 1938, this wealthy co-founder of Weidenfeld and Nicolson Publishing House and Member of the House of Lords was a desperate and penniless Jew. Weidenfeld was rescued from Nazi-occupied Austria and transported to Britain by Christians – Quakers and Plymouth Brethren.
The Independent reported, “The publisher is spearheading Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund, which last week supported the flight of 150 Syrian Christians to Poland on a privately chartered plane to allow them to seek refuge, making them the first beneficiaries of the resettlement project.”
Weidenfeld explained that he owes a debt of gratitude to the Christian community for his own rescue. After recently facilitating the transport of the first 43 Syrian families to Poland, he has vowed to continue to assist them for 12 – 18 months – long enough for them begin new lives out of harm’s way. He also intends to arrange for hundreds more Christians to immigrate in the months to come.
About his efforts, Weidenfeld said,
In the 1930s, thousands of Jews – mainly women and children – were helped by Christians who took enormous personal risks to save them from certain death. We owe a debt of gratitude. We have been deeply moved by the plight of Christians in conflict-torn Middle East countries, and we are supporting the transfer of Christian families to safe havens where they can lead normal lives.
This heartwarming effort is noteworthy for a number of reasons, and it has not gone unnoticed. Apart from its lessons of gratitude and generosity, it also exposes a sea change in the thinking of an increasing number of relief organizations concerned with the plight of millions of refugees and displaced persons in the Middle East.
Victims of war and invasion who have fled the sword of ISIS terrorists, the barrel bombs of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army or the deadly scourge of various Islamist mobs can be counted in the multiplied millions.
These displaced people – hundreds of thousands of whom are victims of Christian persecution – clearly need a safe haven and a new beginning. But where? Who will provide help for them? And how long must they wait?
When I visited Kurdistan in October 2014, my conversations with both Christian and Muslim refugees were distressing. Grim and weary, and with little hope reflected in their eyes, they spoke about the inestimable losses they had sustained.
They described not only the brutal deaths of family members and friends, but also spoke about the stripping away of their possessions – their homes, businesses, clothes and household goods, personal identity papers, deeds, cash, and computers, vehicles and even cellphones and medications. They had been driven out of their houses with nothing more than the proverbial shirts on their back.
As they explained what had befallen them, they seemed skeptical about returning to their homes. Their longtime neighbors had betrayed them, and it was well known that Sunni Muslims in their towns and villages had aligned themselves with the Islamic State, making a pact with murderers, rapists and kidnappers rather than defending their communities.
Still, at that time, church leaders in the Kurdistan area cherished the hope that Kurdish Peshmerga fighting forces, along with Shia militias and U.S.-sponsored bombing raids, would soon drive ISIS out of the many towns and villages they had invaded.
These hopeful clergymen envisioned well-trained defense units – comprised of local Christians as well as seasoned international warriors – that would guarantee protection for the Nineveh Plain and thus create a refuge for Christians within their own ancient homelands.
Although some expressed doubt about this scheme, few wanted to argue with beleaguered religious leaders. If these clergymen opted to entrust their people to the protection of the Kurds until peace was restored, so be it. Meanwhile, donated food, clothing, hygienic kits and weatherization materials continued to be brought in.
But over the course of the next six or eight months, support for the idea of a Christian refuge began to erode. As days turned to weeks, car bombs rocked Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital, and the security situation became increasingly unpredictable. Before long, the conversation changed.
As I wrote in the Washington Times,
Some religious leaders … believe that ISIS and other terrorists will soon be driven out and that a safe haven for Christians will be created, including trustworthy international security protection. However … there are many who question this optimistic scenario. Indeed, most experts say that a safe haven for Christians is unlikely to appear any time soon.
With this in mind, humanitarian organizations, human rights experts, Christian support agencies and donors have begun to look at the alternate plan that Weidenfeld recently adopted: airlifting refugees to safety outside the Middle East.
Moving vulnerable victims out of harm’s way – beyond the ebb and flow of warfare that has virtually washed away all semblance of “normal life” in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding countries – can offer a far more urgent solution.
Unfortunately, it is also complicated and challenging.
The Kurdistan Regional Government has proved itself capable of providing protection for groups of refugees, and a secure airport is available in Erbil. At the present time, airlifts from there are costly, but not a particularly high-risk endeavor.
But airlifts from inside Syria are another story. Refugees have to be transported through dangerous territory and disputed borders. Myriad potential dangers require strategic and tactical preparations and personnel.
Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have now now closed their borders to departing Syrians; the resulting process of vetting self-proclaimed “refugees” to ensure they’re not terrorists is exhaustive. Because these countries are responsible for the evacuees’ resettlement for a year’s time, they are understandably cautious.
Meanwhile – to complicate matters further – very few countries on the receiving end are willing to open their doors to displaced Christians.
My friend and colleague Charmaine Hedding is the founder and director of the Shai Fund, a nonprofit relief organization based in Munich, Germany. In April, she and I sat through one discouraging meeting after another in Washington, D.C. Congressional aides, representatives from relief organizations, and religious freedom advocates all told the same story: There is little to no interest within the present U.S. government for welcoming Middle Eastern Christian refugees.
Why? Because specifying Christians for refugee status – although Christians make up only a small percentage of the millions of Middle Eastern refugees – is considered discriminatory against Muslims.
At the same time, few influential global voices are demanding change in immigration quotas or relaxation of entry requirements. Special consideration of persecuted Christians who need a new beginning, removed from warzones and threats of danger, is a top priority for concerned activists. Yet only a few international leaders have spoken up.
Where, for example, is the voice of Pope Francis?
As Catholic priest Benedict Kiely recently wrote in National Review,
Francis enjoys uncritical acclamation from media worldwide. He should turn that into an opportunity to call on the nations of the world – before it is too late – to open their borders generously to receive the thousands of Christian refugees who wish to leave Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.
So far, only a handful of countries – including Armenia, Canada, Poland and Belgium – have agreed to receive displaced Christians. Others have been approached without response.
I asked my Hudson Institute colleague Nina Shea, who directs the Center for Religious Freedom, how she and others make the case for providing visas to Christian refugees as a specific persecuted minority. She said there are three reasons to do so:
First of all, like the Jews in Nazi Germany, Middle East Christians are not simply victims of the war; they are targeted for religious cleansing by ISIS and other extremists. Second, they have no armies and militias of their own to protect them. And, finally, there is no Christian country or enclave left in the region where they can resettle, and meanwhile their own property is being distributed to others, not only by ISIS but, in Baghdad, by their own government.
Complaints that Christian visas discriminate against Muslim refugees were also voiced about Weidenfeld’s recent rescue of Syrian Christians to Poland. He robustly defended his project’s narrow focus. “I can’t save the world, but there is a very specific possibility on the Christian side. Let others do what they like for the Muslims.”
Weidenfeld hopes to replicate the work done by the late Sir Nicholas Winton, who died on July 1. Winton helped to organize “Kinderstransport” trains that saved more than 10,000 Jewish children from the Nazis.
“It was Quakers and other Christian denominations who brought those children to England,” Weidenfeld said. “It was a very high-minded operation and we Jews should be thankful and do something for the endangered Christians.”