AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem encouraged Iraqi and Syrian Christians fleeing conflict in their home countries and praised Catholic agencies supporting them.
In a homily at a Mass near the banks of the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptized, the Jordanian-born patriarch also commemorated the 15th anniversary of the visit of St. John Paul II to the holy place, recognized as the official site of Jesus’ baptism.
“Among the bloody events that took place in the Middle East has been the displacement of our Iraqi brethren, who fled last year to Jordan because of their faith and their baptism,” Patriarch Twal told the congregation, which included Catholic clergy from various Latin, Syriac, Melkite and other Catholic rites. As part of the annual pilgrimage to the site, they gathered at the still-unfinished Catholic Church of the Baptism of the Lord.
Patriarch Twal referred to the 7,000 Iraqi Christians, mainly Catholics, forced to flee their ancestral homeland in Iraq after Islamic State militants overran the city of Mosul and other villages on the Ninevah Plain last June and August. The Christians were given the choice of conversion to Islam, paying tax, death or flight.
“Christian faith is not a commodity for sale, purchase, or bargaining,” the patriarch said. “Our Syrian and Iraqi brethren — particularly those who recently fled their homes due to extremism and terrorism — are our brothers, guests and relatives.”
Jordan has strained under the burden of hosting some 1.6 million Syrians and 200,000 Iraqis who fled following the 2003 U.S.-led war that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. Between August and October, at least 4,000 additional Iraqis came to Jordan, said Catholic aid officials.
Patriarch Twal lauded the work of the international Catholic charity, Caritas, which has done its “utmost for the displaced” to help restore the “dignity to our suffering brethren.” Caritas has been one of the leading private humanitarian agencies helping the refugees in Jordan.
Syriac Catholic Father Noor Alqamosa has warned that Caritas Jordan will run out of funds at the end of February to aid the Iraqi Christians, unless donations soon arrive.
The head of the U.N. refugee agency, António Guterres, sounded the alarm 14 January, saying that most Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan are rapidly slipping into poverty. He said one in 6 among the 620,000 Syrians registered with the U.N. in Jordan live on just $1.30 a day because international aid has not been forthcoming.
“The truth is, it is insufficient to be able to guarantee a dignified life to all the Syrians living in Jordan,” Guterres told reporters in Amman.
He warned that unless international funding increases, Syrian refugees will opt for “drastic coping strategies,” including “children dropping out of school and women resorting to survival sex.”
Patriarch Twal also commemorated St. John Paul’s visit to the baptism site in 2000. Four popes have made a pilgrimage to the site, the latest being Pope Francis in May.
Speaking of Pope Francis’ visit, he said: “The pope made history when he prayed touching the river water, where he was blessed and where he blessed the masses of young people, the sick and the elderly who were in this church, as well as our brethren from Syria and Iraq.”
He recalled that, during the pilgrimage, Pope Francis spoke to and blessed refugees and cancer patients.