Iraq's highest-ranking Catholic prelate has instructed priests not to help Christians flee the country out of fear that they're unwittingly handing families over to human traffickers.
The command came from Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Raphael Louis Sako, according to Christian Daily. Although Sako's title names him as the head of the Chaldean Catholic church, the church and the patriarch are in full communion with Rome, meaning they're part of the larger, worldwide Catholic Church.
Sako and other members of Chaldean Episcopate acknowledged the situation in Iraq is perilous for Christians, who have been kidnapped, tortured and executed by members of the Islamic State.
Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were approximately 1.5 million Christians living in the majority-Muslim nation, Al Jazeera's Jane Ferguson said during a PBS roundtable discussion on March 29.
"Now it is believed less than 200,000 remain," Ferguson said. "Many of those have been displaced from their villages by the Islamic State. These Christians fled their town as ISIS fighters approached, losing everything they have ever known in just a few terrifying hours."
Many of those people are still in the country, driven from their homes and hiding in remote makeshift refugee camps. Sako said he understands the desire to help the victims of ISIS, but warned Iraqi Catholic priests that there are "traffickers and unscrupulous organizations" who take advantage of desperate refugees, according to Agenzia Fides.
Human smugglers made billions from smuggling refugees in 2016, according to the European Police Office, or Europol. Reports abound of smugglers scuttling boats filled with refugees, stealing the life savings of the people they transport and selling refugees as slaves.
In issuing his directive, Sako said the challenge is too great for clergy to face alone, and that they can't in good conscience turn desperate refugees over to smugglers. Instead, the Iraqi Catholic leader called for international intervention to take back territory from ISIS, allowing the Iraqi Christians who fled to return to their homes and villages.