“Brothers and sisters, all,” describes well the theme of the pastoral visit of CNEWA President Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari to northern Iraq and Lebanon, 20-28 November.
Echoing the title of Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical, “Fratelli tutti,” the pastoral visit has thus far focused on the common themes of witness to the Gospel and solidarity with Iraq’s many Christian communities, and finding common ground with Muslims and Yazidis.
“Through the work of CNEWA here,” Msgr. Vaccari said, “especially through our Pontifical Mission teams in Beirut and Amman, we work to keep hope alive, focusing always on the teachings of Jesus as our source of life and hope.”
Msgr. Vaccari, accompanied by Beirut regional director Michel Constantin, project manager Imad Abu Jaoude, and communications director Michael La Civita, have thus far met with Chaldean Catholic, Church of the East and Yazidi leaders in Alqosh, Dohuk, Lalish and Erbil. These stops included visits to parish, health care, community life, catechetical and educational programs supported by CNEWA, as well as spiritual centers of the Chaldean Catholic, Church of the East and Yazidi faithful.
“Together, we are channeling the good will of people of good will worldwide,” said Archimandrite Emanuel Youhana, head of the ecumenical Iraqi organization, CAPNI, “to the suffering church of Iraq,” which he said to Msgr. Vaccari, was suffering only because of “man-made disasters.”
“We work to materialize, to keep hope alive,” he exclaimed. After witnessing that hope at the school of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Dohuk, run by Sisters Rahma and Sandes, built by Aid to the Church in Need and equipped by CNEWA, the delegation traveled to the village of Lalish, home of one of the holiest temples of the Yazidi people.
Followers of an ancient religion of Mesopotamia predating Zoroastrianism, the Yazidi have long been a persecuted community, especially in recent years with the advent of Islamic extremism. In 2014, along with the Christian communities of the Nineveh Plain, the Yazidi were driven from their homes by ISIS, a force of hatred determined to exterminate this ancient community of faith dedicated to peace. Yazidi leader Baba Shawish received Msgr. Vaccari and the delegation with warmth and gratitude, asking CNEWA’s president to share his message with the Holy Father, Pope Francis.
“We share the same enemy,” he said of fanaticism and extremism. We Yazidi have lived together with Christians in peace for thousands of years, “but our enemy is the same. “Yes, God is above in the sky,” he said, looking exhausted and weary, “but the only force on the ground to do good is America.”
Throwing his hands up in the air, the sheik added that while spiritually he has “hope in my faith,” he sees “no future in Iraq.”
The delegation left Lalish reminded of the thousands of Yazidi women and men raped and murdered just a few years ago, the fears of these peacemakers imprinted clearly, despite the sounds of the birds singing in the trees from the lofty mountain grandeur of Lalish, and the feel of the gentle breeze as evening drew near.
“We believe Creation began here,” Baba Shawish, said as he accompanied us to our return to the modern world. Back in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, Mar Abres of the Church of the East shared with Msgr. Vaccari and the delegation his efforts in keeping hope alive, knowing “this is Iraq after all,” but strengthened by the solidarity of prayer with other Christians and peoples of good will.