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U.S. Bishops Travel to Iraq, Meet Displaced Christians

27 Jan 2015 – By Dale Gavlak

AIN KAWA, Iraq (CNS) — One of Iraq’s Christians chased out of her historic homeland quietly prayed the rosary as a bishop who traveled halfway around the world to meet her and others displaced celebrated Mass for them.

“It’s a journey of encountering God, the poor and the dispossessed,” Bishop Oscar Cantu, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the gathering in this predominantly Christian enclave in Erbil, capital of the northern Kurdistan region.

Bishop Cantu traveled to northern Iraq with a USCCB delegation 16-20 January to see the needs of displaced Christians and other religious minorities. The delegation plans to share its findings and views with policymakers on Capitol Hill.

The elderly woman, wearing a traditional long robe, sat transfixed during the homily, silent except for the clicking of her rosary beads.

Tears welled up in her eyes as she remembered having to escape her mainly Christian village of Qaraqosh in August after it was brutally attacked by Islamic State militants.

Now, she lives in poverty among 113 families in a tent camp erected in a tiny park outside the St. Ellial Chaldean Catholic Chapel. Deeply traumatized, many feel lost.

All are dependent on church assistance, and they wonder what future awaits them. The Islamic State onslaught forced them to leave behind possessions in a quick escape where the choice was conversion to Islam or death.

The Kurdish region is hosting more than 800,000 Iraqi religious minorities fleeing Islamic State terror, according to the United Nations.

“It’s a journey of encountering Christ, walking with him and falling in love with him,” said Bishop Cantu, who heads the Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The words were reminiscent of those spoken by another displaced Iraqi Christian, who said that Jesus told him to ‘“Come and follow me.”

“Pray as we encounter the many displaced and uprooted from their land and for the many responding to their needs in a beautiful way,” said Bishop Cantu, referring to vast Catholic charity work undertaken by Iraq’s parishes and international Catholic aid agencies.

“Continue to tell their stories as an encounter with God,” Bishop Cantu said.

That’s exactly what Stephen Colecchi, who directs the USCCB Office of International Justice and Peace, and Kevin Appleby, director of USCCB Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs, plan to do with U.S. policymakers, Catholic leaders, congregations and supporters.

Here are a few of the stories they may be sharing.

While Iraqi Catholics in Ain Kawa recently celebrated three new deacons set to enter the priesthood as a sign of renewed hope for the future, the area’s Chaldean Catholic archbishop expressed deep concerns.

Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil estimated 60 Iraqi Christians, many qualified professionals, are fleeing the country daily in the belief that “peace will not return.”

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Tags: Iraq Middle East Christians Iraqi Christians Iraqi Refugees U.S. Bishops