Recently, I returned from a pastoral visit to Kurdistan in northern Iraq. I had been invited by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, along with four Catholic agency administrators from Europe, to accompany him on the trip. The purpose of the visit was to offer the loving solidarity and concern of Pope Francis for the tens of thousands of refugees and displaced Christians who have fled their homes in Iraq and Syria. The experience challenged both mind and heart.
There was a strong common thread in the interaction with these suffering Christians, most of whom were victims of persecution. Conversations began with the refugees thanking the pope for his love, and expressing appreciation for the assistance offered by the aid agencies of the Catholic Church.
We also noted an obvious love for the priests and sisters who heroically serve these displaced people of faith. By the way, almost all of these caregivers — clergy and religious — are themselves displaced. Some even fled Iraq with their flock, many of them orphaned or elderly, and ventured through the desert to seek a safe haven in Kurdistan.
Over and over again, the refugees expressed what we would consider professions of faith. While ISIS took some as captives, executed loved ones, and confiscated all their properties and their identities, ISIS never took their faith. Some we met had rosaries around their necks and pointed to the cross; others proudly lifted their palms to show a tattooed cross on their wrists. To most of them, their faith was everything.
What surprised some of our group was the insistence by the vast majority of displaced Christians that they “did not want a visa and airline ticket to go to North America or Europe.” They only wanted to return to their towns and villages where they could sacramentally live out their faith in their local church. These are Christians who revere their faith and appreciate the heritage and blessing of living out that faith where it began.
Even though their living conditions varied from crude, unhygienic and extremely stressful to moderately safe and “comfortable,” all the refugees demonstrated a warm sense of welcome and hospitality to Cardinal Sandri and the rest of us.
Many of those we met live in halls, sleeping on floor mats or dirty mattresses, with eight or even ten family members in a very confined space. They live alongside other families, separated by a dirty sheet or hanging drape. Some have been given shelter in shipping containers with no light and no ventilation. Others live in mini-trailers. A few have moved into shared houses with as many as four families sharing one home. Most bathroom and kitchen facilities are shared by the community. Water must be carried from large holding tanks and is always in short supply.
Of course, there are complaints and disputes among the displaced. Given the living circumstances, the lack of privacy and space, and the uncertainty of their future, this is only natural.
But in their faith, they endure.
I wish you could have joined me at some liturgies with the refugee community. One took place in a large tent with 350 faithful refugees singing their hearts out in praise to the Lord; another was held outside, gathered around a crude altar platform, and was attended by more than 600 Syriac Catholics who fled from the Nineveh Plain in Iraq. I had a view into their souls when they approached to receive the body and blood of Christ.
As I mentioned at the outset, this was a pastoral visit. This usually means that the visitor seeks to offer spiritual support to a group of believers, in this case to a group of refugees with a very uncertain future. But for me, this was a mini-retreat — a time to step back and celebrate baptism, Easter and Pentecost. It was also a time of renewal for me personally as a priest.
As a prayerful supporter of CNEWA, please know how much you are loved by these refugees and how much they appreciate your generosity. Please remember them in your prayers as you celebrate the gift of your own faith.