13 April 2016
The damaged St. Sarkis Church in Sadad, Syria, is seen in 2013. Hundreds of Christian families are returning to Sadad, more than two years after their city was overrun by terrorists, a local official said. (photo:CNS/EPA)
Christians returning to Syria (CNS) Hundreds of Christian families are returning to Sadad, Syria, more than two years after their city was overrun by terrorists, a local official has said. Suleiman al Khalil, the mayor of Sadad, told Russian media on April 6 of the influx of Christians returning to the city after Russian forces defeated the al Nusra Front, reported Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples...
Assad invites delegation from Russian Orthodox Church to visit Syria (Fides) Syrian President Bashar al Assad has invited a “high-level delegation” of the Russian Orthodox Church to visit Syria, at a time when the Syrian government army seems to have reversed the destiny of the conflict with militias jihadist rebels, returning to recover large areas of the country thanks to military support received from Moscow...
Syria holds parliamentary elections (The Washington Post) Even as Syrian peace talks were scheduled to resume Wednesday in Geneva, President Bashar al-Assad took a major jab at the process: voting in parliamentary elections denounced as a farce by the opposition...
Pope’s visit to Lesbos comes at time of fear for refugees (CNS) Pope Francis’ trip to Lesbos, Greece, on 16 April comes at a frightening and critical time for tens of thousands of refugees and migrants waiting and wondering where they will end up, said members of Catholic aid agencies. Maristella Tsamatropoulou, spokeswoman for Caritas Hellas, the Catholic charity in Greece, said when rumors started swirling that Pope Francis would join Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople on a visit to refugees, “we believed it immediately because our Pope is spontaneous; he’s a force of nature...”
Indian leader calls for equal Dalit rights (UCANews.com) Christians and Muslims in India have welcomed comments by the head of an eastern state favoring quotas for Dalit religious minorities in government jobs and educational institutions, a right enjoyed by their Hindu counterparts. “The time has come to give quotas to low-caste Muslims and Christians who have long been deprived of this right because of their religious affiliations,” Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar said...
Saddam Hussein’s palace to become a museum (The Telegraph) The large mansion in Basra, southern Iraq, will become the first museum to open in the war-torn country in several years after serving as a mess hall for the British army during the war, according to National Geographic. The British pulled out from Basra in September 2007...
12 April 2016
Raeda Firas kisses her 4-year old son, Luis, as he leaves their modular home on 7 April to attend a church-run preschool in Ainkawa, Iraq. The family was displaced by the Islamic State group in 2014 and lives in a church-provided modular home. (photo: CNS/Paul Jeffrey)
Photojournalist Paul Jeffrey of CNS this morning filed this item on the CNS blog. He is one of the journalists covering Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s pastoral visit to displaced Iraqis:
Every morning, as her son prepares to leave for preschool, the mother of 4-year old Luis Firas takes a stick of oil and makes the sign of the cross on his forehead.
Blessing is important for this Christian family, which fled from Mosul during the 2014 takeover of the area by Islamic State militants and today — like tens of thousands of other displaced — live in a small modular temporary shelter in Erbil, a town in northern Iraq controlled by Kurds.
As I photographed their morning ritual, Luis grabbed the stick and marked a cross on his mother’s forehead, also blessing her.
When the displaced families arrived in Erbil, a booming oil town fallen on hard economic times and the looming threat of Islamic State they found physical safety. But since they weren’t refugees — they had crossed no international border — they weren’t eligible for assistance from a variety of international agencies. Neither the governments of Iraq nor the autonomous Kurdistan offered much. It was the church that walked with them as they fled from ISIS, and the church that struggled to find them food and shelter in exile.
As almost 20 months have gone by, the church continues to be the de facto manager of aid. The displaced camps are managed by priests-turned-mayors, the schools run by nuns who are themselves survivors of what many consider genocide, the clinics staffed by volunteer doctors who go home at the end of the day to a tiny prefabricated house in a camp for the internally displaced.
Read it all.
12 April 2016
Sister Maria Hanna serves as the mother superior of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in northern Iraq. (photo: John E. Kozar)
The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena who serve the displaced people of Iraq are among the most selfless women we’ve encountered — and also, among the most heroic.
Their mother superior is Sister Maria Hanna, who fled with dozens of her sisters from their convent in Quaraqosh when ISIS swept through northern Iraq in August of 2014. They settled in Erbil, some 50 miles away, to begin serving others in the same boat:
Throughout this trauma, a backbone of support for the displaced Christians has been the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, some 73 of whom were also exiled from their convents across the plain. Led by Sister Maria Hanna, mother superior, the community initially administered to the displaced from their convent in Ainkawa. As families were moved from Ainkawa to Kasnazan, it became clear a second, satellite convent was required.
“We want to be with the people — to serve the people in the moment,” says Sister Maria. “If they move someplace else, we move with them.”
...The leitmotif evident across all the communities of displaced Christians living in towns across Iraqi Kurdistan is resilience. From the seemingly hopeless ashes of shock and despair of last autumn, green shoots of hope sprout. From Erbil to Dohuk to Suleimaniyah, the Christians, frequently marginalized from public services by the Kurdish authorities, are building their own structures of support and care. The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena have been crucial to the slow but steady emergence of this infrastructure from the chaos of displacement.
Within weeks of their exile, Sister Maria Hanna and her community realized children needed special help in this crucial time.
“Children in the displaced families are the real victims,” she says. “They are really crushed by the situation. Entire families had to suddenly all live together in one room or tent and the children were not allowed to speak, to express fear or frustration. They couldn’t play. They couldn’t shout. Often they had to bear witness to domestic problems caused by the displacement.”
Responding to this need, the Dominican Sisters established a kindergarten and an orphanage in Ainkawa, filling in for institutions abandoned back home. These efforts have eased the burden on families — especially the children themselves, starving to learn and play.
“One of the boys was so excited to be going to kindergarten that, the night before the first day back, he slept the whole night with his backpack on,” Sister Maria Hanna says. “He did not want anything to come between him and his learning!”
In 2014, CNEWA’s Michael La Civita hailed her as one of the Catholics of the Year in Our Sunday Visitor:
Sister Maria Hanna has served during a tumultuous moment in Iraqi history. Her term has coincided with a decade-long ordeal that has included invasion, war, sectarian strife and persecution. Sister Maria Hanna has made a difference. She has mobilized her own exiled community, organizing volunteer relief committees and working with partners, such as Catholic Near East Welfare Association, to assess the needs of the displaced, assist those with special needs, counsel those in shock and treat those who are ill.
Read more about Sister Maria Hanna and her order in Grace, from the Summer 2015 edition of ONE.
12 April 2016
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York greets parishioners at the end of an 11 April Mass in a displaced-persons camp in Ainkawa, near Erbil, Iraq. (photo: CNS/Paul Jeffrey)
Tom Gallagher from the National Catholic Reporter is part of the team that accompanied Cardinal Timothy Dolan and CNEWA on the pastoral visit to Iraq this week. He had a chance to interview the cardinal and get some initial impressions from his trip:
NCR: In addition to prayer, what practical assistance can dioceses, parishes, Catholic organizations and individuals do to assist Christians persecuted and suffering in Iraq and the Middle East?
Dolan: One of the reasons we come here is to get the word out and let people know what’s happening. First of all, I know you didn’t intend it this way, Tom, but we can never diminish the value of prayer. And that has to be first and foremost. If I’ve ever seen that vindicated, it’s in the vivid faith of the people here. I mean prayer, worship, liturgy, faith means the world to them. And as one lady told us yesterday, “Where else are we going to go, but to our faith?” We can never diminish prayer. I know you didn’t intend it that way.
What can we do? I think we need to get practical. Let’s start supporting vigorously organizations like the Catholic Near East Welfare Association...
...Number two: Let’s advocate. Do you remember when [President] Ronald Reagan for the first time met with [Soviet Union President] Mikhail Gorbachev? He told the American people that he had a list in his pocket of the names of people who were in prison for their religious beliefs in the Soviet Union. He intended to ask Mikhail Gorbachev about each of them. And it worked.
We hold in high regard the advocacy of our Jewish neighbors, especially in New York. They are first to tell us, people like Bishop Murphy and me, “What’s taking you so long? Why are you afraid to advocate with the government on behalf of your people?” We need to do that.
I’ve been moved with the fact that I haven’t detected any anger against the United States among these wonderful people [the internally displaced Christian Iraqis]. In fact, I detect a love for America, almost a trust that America could do something for them. And we can’t let them down. We’ve got to do it. I’m not just talking about humanitarian aid. I’m talking about the plea from them [displaced Iraqi Christians] that we heard over and over again: “We just want to go home. We just want to go home.” So let’s advocate.
Read the entire interview.
To support CNEWA’s work in Iraq, visit this link.
12 April 2016
Displaced Iraqi families are receiving support in a variety of ways from CNEWA.
(photo: Kevin Sullivan)
Today during our pastoral visit with Cardinal Dolan, chair of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), our mission brought us within a few miles of the Turkish border and a few miles from the devastated city of Mosul.
Our mission today and every day here in Kurdistan, Iraq is to show solidarity with those suffering from the ravages of ISIS persecution of Christians, Muslims and the Kurdish religious community called Yazidis. No group seems to have been spared.
We visited an inspiring CNEWA medical clinic with state-of-the-art medicines and equipment that treat those displaced and now settled in the city of Duhok. Once again, many of the staff are also displaced individuals. The clinic serves Yazidis, Muslims and Christians with a staff whose spirit and dedication are palpable. Hundreds are helped each day in a range of specialities.
We then visited a local parish and celebrated Sunday Mass with a vibrant congregation composed of hundreds of families displaced in the past two years. The Patriarch’s Vicar celebrated the Liturgy in an Eastern rite and Cardinal Dolan preached. For me, one of the most moving parts of the Mass was hearing the congregation pray the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic — very likely a modern version of the language in which Jesus actually taught the prayer to his disciples. Meanwhile, the young adult choir rivaled any choir I’ve heard for their sound and exceeded most for their prayerfulness.
Read the rest and see more pictures from the visit here.
12 April 2016
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York blesses a child in the Mar Narsai Clinic in Dahuk, Iraq, on 10 April. Cardinal Dolan is making a pastoral visit to Iraq this week in his role as Chair of CNEWA. To follow his journey, visit this link. (photo: CNS/Paul Jeffrey)
12 April 2016
In Ethiopia’s Afar region, girls wait to fill containers at the local water pump. The UN says the humanitarian emergency in Ethiopia has worsened along with the drought. Read more on the crisis here. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
UN: Food emergency spreads as Ethiopian drought worsens (Bloomberg) The number of Ethiopian districts identified as suffering a humanitarian emergency increased 18 percent to 219 from December to March as the impact of drought worsened, the United Nations said...
Concern over safety of Syrian refugees (The Guardian) Setting up refugee “safe zones” on the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border and refusing to allow those fleeing the conflict to seek international protection could be a violation of international law and put vulnerable people at risk, human rights groups and aid workers have warned...
Alexandria court bans demolition of churches in Egypt (Albawaba.com) The Administrative Court of Alexandria has blocked the demolition of a church belonging to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, in the process issuing a ruling that prohibits the demolition of any church in Egypt. The move has been welcomed by members of the Coptic Christian community, who claim that Egyptian churches have been subject to “violations” for many years...
The fading of Gaza’s architectural heritage (AFP) A surprise awaits beyond a black door adorned with a silver lotus flower at the end of a tangle of alleyways in Gaza’s chaotic Old City. Through it and behind imposing stone walls sits a small, Levantine-style palace, some 430 years old and recently painstakingly restored. It is among the rare vestiges of Gaza City’s architectural heritage, battered by war, time, population pressure and simple indifference...
11 April 2016
Displaced Iraqis celebrate Mass in Inishke, Iraq, on 10 April. (photo: CNS/Paul Jeffrey)
A delegation of U.S. Catholic leaders visiting northern Iraq was challenged to go home and work for peace in the troubled region.
“You have come to listen to your brothers and sisters in Iraq who are suffering. The situation is very hard. We cry out with one voice, ‘Don’t forget us,’” Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad said during a Mass in the small village of Inishke, near Dahuk.
The Chaldean Catholic service included members of the local Christian community, as well as Christians who were displaced by the Islamic State group from elsewhere in Iraq. Representatives of the Yezidi and Muslim communities also greeted the delegation, which was headed by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chair of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. He was accompanied by Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York, who is also on the CNEWA board.
The group spent April 9-11 in Kurdistan, the autonomous region of northern Iraq. When Islamic State swept through Mosul and Qaraqosh in 2014, more than 125,000 Christians, along with other victims, fled to safety in Kurdistan, where CNEWA has helped local churches construct housing, clinics and schools.
Yet Bishop Warduni said peace trumps humanitarian aid any day.
“We don’t want anything. Iraq is very rich, but now it is very poor. We only want our rights to go back to our homes and villages,” he said.
Looking directly at Cardinal Dolan, Bishop Warduni said: “We need a good Samaritan, but a new one, and this is you, along with the other leaders who came with you. We thank you and your people, for they have done so much for us with their prayers and with their money. But we ask you to ask your government to establish peace in our country. Tell your president, please, that our children and our youth want to grow in freedom. Your Eminence, take with you our good wishes to your faithful, and don’t forget us.”
In his homily for the Mass, Cardinal Dolan told those packed into the small church: “You are now suffering away from your homes and families. You are on the cross with Jesus. But we can never forget that Easter always conquers Good Friday. The resurrection always triumphs over the cross.”
Speaking through a translator because the service was in Aramaic, Cardinal Dolan said: “Jesus is alive in the love and charity that his people have for one another. That is why in our time here in Kurdistan we have seen Jesus alive in hospitals and clinics and refugee camps and schools and parishes like this. And it is our privilege to be able to be part of this love and charity that you have for one another here.”
“We have come to tell you we love you very much,” Cardinal Dolan said. “We know of your suffering. And we can never forget you.”
In an 11 April Mass in a camp for the displaced in Ainkawa, on the outskirts of Irbil, the delegation got the same message it heard the previous day.
“We feel very grateful for this fraternal solidarity that you are showing. And we all do hope that you will intervene with your government, with those who have a word to say on the international scene, to be faithful to the principles on which your country was founded. That includes the right of all people, every human being, to live in freedom and dignity,” Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan said in his homily.
“When we see that strong nations like yours uphold the rights of those who have been uprooted, at that time we will really live the hope of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.”
In an interview at the end of the visit, Cardinal Dolan told Catholic News Service that the pastoral visit would provoke renewed advocacy back home.
“We value the relationship we have with our government, but we sometimes smile when outsiders think we have a lot more clout than we really have. But that’s not going to stop us from trying,” the cardinal said. “When we get back, Bishop Murphy and I will brief our fellow bishops and the Holy See, and we will share with our political leaders what we have seen and heard. We owe it to the people here because they have asked us to do that.”
Cardinal Dolan acknowledged that the church’s counsel was rejected in the lead up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which many believe helped create the conditions from which Islamic State emerged.
“Catholics in the United States can at least be grateful that, more often than not, the church has been on the right side when it comes to these issues,” Cardinal Dolan said. “Pope St. John Paul II told our presidents, ‘This will be a road of no return, and you will look back in future years and regret what you’re doing.””
Bishop Murphy said the U.S. bishops always spoke of the need for caution in the region.
“Maybe we were too cautious with our cautionary words, and I think you could make a case for that, but there are a lot of people who have strong opinions against what happened who voted for it at the time. We never did,” he told CNS.
As they visited with the displaced and the pastoral workers who accompany them, some of what the U.S. church leaders saw and heard was not easy to experience. In an 9 April public forum in a displaced camp in Ainkawa, Amal Mare was one of several displaced persons who offered testimony. She praised local Christians for welcoming her family when they fled from Qaraqosh.
“Yet when are we going to be able to leave? We are living here in misery, and we want to go back to Qaraqosh,” she said, sobbing as Cardinal Dolan embraced her. “We miss our churches. We are sons and daughters of the church. Here we created a church in this hall, and every night for the last 18 months we have all prayed the rosary here. But now we’re losing hope. How much longer will we have to wait?”
Meeting 9 April with a group of students at the Chaldean Catholic St. Peter’s Seminary in Irbil, Cardinal Dolan told the seminarians that they had good models of ministry from which to learn.
“Pope Francis keeps saying that we priests must be with our people. We just came from a refugee camp where we met a priest who slept outside on his mattress because he said he couldn’t sleep inside if his people were outside. We’ve met with sisters and priests who walked with the people from Mosul as they were fleeing. That’s the model of the priesthood. That’s Jesus. To be with our people all the time, to be especially close to your people in the difficult times,” the cardinal said.
Bishop Murphy told the seminarians he was impressed by their faithfulness in the midst of violence and terror.
“Although these are difficult times, the church has always known difficult times. You lift me up. It is the strength of your faith that has brought you here, and it is that faith which gives me great hope for your future,” he said.
The head of the Chaldean Catholic community in Kurdistan, which has provided a variety of services to the displaced, praised the church leaders’ visit.
“It has been a visit of solidarity, a visit of love, a visit of hope, where we can really feel that we are not forgotten, that we’ve been in the prayers of His Eminence and the bishops and the whole Christian community in America. It means a lot for us,” Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil told Catholic News Service.
“And once we’re not forgotten, we are sure they will make every possible effort to remind the politicians, to remind everyone, that there are persecuted, vulnerable communities in Iraq. They are Christians, Yezidis and others, and we have to do something for them. We are brothers, and whenever a brother suffers or experiences sadness, the family gets together, prays together, and works together to overcome this.”
In addition to Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Murphy, the delegation included Msgr. John Kozar, president of CNEWA, and Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New York.
11 April 2016
Cardinal Dolan greets worshipers at a discplacement camp in Iraq.
(photo: Tom Gallagher/National Catholic Reporter)
The New York Post this morning has a brief roundup of Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s visit to Iraqi Kurdistan:
Timothy Cardinal Dolan traveled to war-torn northern Iraq to lift the spirits of Christian families persecuted by ISIS and displaced from their homes.
“Please, hear us say we love you, we need you, we cannot forget you,” Dolan told the faithful Saturday at the St. Peter Patriarchal Seminary in Erbil, the last Christian seminary in the country, according to the Catholic News Agency.
Dolan led a delegation of Catholic officials from New York, and encouraged the flock to reject the notion that the church is dead in Iraq.
Read it all.
11 April 2016
Two young displaced Iraqis display determination and hope. (photo: Kevin Sullivan)
Today’s visit to the school for children displaced from Mosul was more celebratory with the presence of Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop Warda and Bishop Murphy. An assembly of more than 440 students gathered in the central square of the school accompanied by marching music. CNEWA’s head Msgr. Kozar made sure that the visitors experienced the uplifting spirit of the school that the Dominican Sisters infuse every day. The deeply spiritual atmosphere of the school is exemplified by the volunteer French catechist and her Iraqi translator who teach the children how to pray to Jesus. CNEWA support and spirit are essential to making the school so successful.
The visit to the convent of the Dominican Sisters provided a life lesson in the suffering and deaths caused by persecution and deviant religious actions. Some 74 sisters fled ISIS terrorism from the Mosul area in August 2015. When they first arrived, only some could live in the convent due to lack of space. Many lived in quickly arranged trailers on the convent grounds. Over the past year, 24 sisters have died of various causes from the effects of the trauma they suffered. Eight sisters are living in trailers. Contrary to secular expectations, this community that has experienced so much suffering and death is a strong source of life and hope not merely among themselves but for the tens of thousands they serve in schools, clinics and camps in the Erbil region.
The camp visited today is a place of both faith and frustration: strong faith in Jesus and strong frustration that the future seems indeterminate. The desire to return to the homes from which they have been displaced is frustrated by the uncertainty if and when this might be possible. There is the awareness that they must rebuild from the ground up as the houses and places of worship they left are no longer theirs — if any are even still standing. Accompanying this frustration and anger is also a vision of hope as one young women sees herself as a journalist telling the poignant stores of her people.
The day ended with a visit to a seminary and the 17 seminarians studying for the priesthood in this persecuted and war torn land. My cursory math (subject to correction upon further review) made me quickly estimate that percentage-wise there are more seminarians per total Catholics in Iraq than there are in New York. One was asked about his fear of persecution. His response was simple; that this is part of our Christian faith.
You can see more of Msgr. Sullivan’s pictures on his blog Just Love.