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Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon Find Hope in Infant Baptisms at Easter Vigil

06 Apr 2015 – By Doreen Abi Raad

BEIRUT (CNS) — Despite the extreme hardship of being exiled from their homes in Iraq, the Easter vigil was a day of great joy for the parents of eight babies who were baptized in Lebanon.

Carried by his grandmother, 40-day-old Nimar, was the first to arrive at St. Elias Melkite Catholic Church.

Settling into a pew, she told Catholic News Service that Nimar is the first of her 12 grandchildren to be baptized outside of the family’s ancestral parish near Mosul, Iraq, an area overrun by Islamic State militants.

“I would have preferred, if life were like before, that he would have been baptized in Iraq with all our family around,” said the grandmother, who asked that she not be identified because she feared retribution against her family by militants in Iraq. “But the most important thing is that he is being baptized. Today he will be a true Christian.”

For his baptismal name, the family chose Behnam, a martyr and saint revered in the Syriac Catholic Church. The Mar Behnam monastery, near Mosul, dating to the fourth century, recently was destroyed by the Islamic State.

The grandmother added that it was a great consolation and honor that her grandson would be baptized by the Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III, something she never could have imagined back home.

The patriarchate is assisting 1,200 Iraqi refugee families in Beirut.

Most of the families were among the more than 70,000 Syriac Catholics who were driven from Mosul and the Ninevah Plain by militants of the Islamic State last summer after being forced to choose between abandoning their faith and converting to Islam or leaving. At first, an estimated 100,000 exiled minorities sought sanctuary in Kurdistan in northern Iraq, living in tents, prefabricated huts and unfinished buildings. Thousands have since left for Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey with the hope of moving abroad.

The refugees live several families together, in small apartments in Dekwaneh north of Beirut, too far from the patriarchate located on the other side of the city. St. Elias Church has become the adopted parish for the beleaguered Syriacs and their patriarch was coming to serve them.

Syriac Catholic Father Firas Dardar, who organizes the patriarchate’s outreach to refugees, tended to last-minute details in preparation for the baptism ceremony.

The patriarch also celebrated the Easter vigil Mass that followed the baptism ceremony on an altar decorated with baskets of colorful Easter eggs. Excitement built as Patriarch Ignatius Joseph entered the church. His voice from the altar was drowned out at first by the chatter in the overflowing pews.

Soon, the only distraction was an occasional cry from the babies in the front pew. Older children, some carrying younger kids, made their way to the front of the church for a better view.

Patriarch Ignatius Joseph reminded the congregation that baptism represents the Resurrection.

“Despite all the suffering and all the misery, we will baptize these babies so they can be God’s children,” he said. “We do not fear to be exiled. We hope this water becomes a font of joy and happiness.”

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Tags: Iraq Lebanon Iraqi Christians Iraqi Refugees Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan