‘ISIS is an army of the devil,” Father Dankbar Issa, a Chaldean monk, tells the charity group Aid to the Church in Need. “The warriors of ISIS are sons of the devil. There is no other explanation for what they are doing to people,” he said just after he celebrated Palm Sunday Mass in Malabrwan, in northern Iraq.
He and his fellow monks had fled their monastery of St. George as ISIS captured Mosul last summer. He explains that displaced families in his new parish are living in classrooms of the catechism school. The refugee children can’t go to school — something that greatly worries their parents, knowing that education is needed to give them options for their future — but they pray that life in their temporary home will be a teacher for them. As it is for us all.
While Father Issa worries deeply about the prospects for those children, their families, and all Christians in Iraq and other embattled parts of the Middle East, he does not bemoan their lot and is not bitter. “We Christians were baptized into the suffering of our Lord. So persecution is something we have to expect,” he told the group. “We know that Easter, which means life, will be victorious. It gives us hope in spite of all the difficulties.”
One family in the parish is determined to stay in Iraq, Father Issa tells the group. He quotes one of the family members: “We will not leave Iraq. Where would we go? This is our home. We belong here.” Another, a family of five, headed for Jordan for Easter. They have family in Australia, and they want to “start a new life there.”
Archbishop Bashar Warda in Erbil reports to Aid to the Church in Need that he sees this every day: Christian families leaving, even as “the humanitarian situation has stabilized.” He and his colleagues now have the opportunity to focus on proper schools and accommodations for those who fled their homes on account of ISIS, but many Christians have already left the country.
For Easter, Pope Francis sent an envoy to Kurdistan bearing gifts — 6,000 dove-shaped Italian Easter sponge cakes and 10,000 rosaries. “I did not come here as a tourist,” Cardinal Fernando Filoni said in Iraq, “but rather to make a pilgrimage among the persecuted Christians, a pilgrimage that has done me a great spiritual good.”
Alejandro Bermudez, a Peruvian-born journalist who runs the Spanish-language ACI Prensa and Catholic News Agency, was there for Father Issa’s celebration of the Eucharist, having gone over to Iraq to be with the persecuted for Easter. (Read our interview here.) There he found Christians helping others whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the terror of ISIS. About 450,000 Yazidis, a small religious minority ISIS ironically considers devil-worshipers, are described as “the poorest of the poor” by Shelan Jibrael, a Christian Iraqi who works with a Japanese NGO. They have “nothing and nobody,” she says.
But they do have Jibrael, committed to live the Beatitudes at the heart of her faith, which include blessed are the meek, blessed are the persecuted, blessed are the peacemakers. They all seem to apply to Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil in northern Iraq, where Bermudez toured an area of half-built apartments. Half-built because there are so few men living in this area — most have been killed by ISIS. A girl who acted as translator for Bermudez, Elmyra, a nine-year-old from Kurdistan, announced: “My daddy is alive, not like the other children that have lost their father; but my brother is sick.” Her older brother, who is eleven, is suffering from post-traumatic stress effects of the violence, and also needs an operation to correct a problem with his eyes.
Bermudez, by going over to Iraq, was able to highlight the good works happening there. Jibrael intends to enlist the aid of some Slovakian doctors who have set up a clinic nearby. Dr. Zuzana Dudova tells Bermudez about the few practical options many displaced Christians have there: “The men try to find work so they can move into a single-family home, but there are few opportunities, and the lack of security makes going back impossible in the short term . . . so we have to continue going on here, and we hope that the world’s Christians will not forget their brothers and sisters in Iraq.”
Meanwhile, on Easter Day in the United States, the Sunday TV shows tried to turn attention, as they do, to the obvious news story of the day — which in this case was Christ’s Resurrection. This meant some time for clerics and for religious reflection — and with palpable policy implications, in the midst of the frenzied debate surrounding religious freedom here at home, most recently in Indiana. In that debate, much of the commentary, both in the media and on social media, seemed to be insisting on the imposition of sexually revolutionary values over the freedom to act in accordance with one’s conscience. The connection between Indiana and Iraq seemed lost on many.
As Fox News Sunday showed the open doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Meet the Press wondered about the president and the Crusades, and This Week launched into a discussion between a “Vatican II Catholic” and a “Pope Francis Catholic” after a report describing the shepherd of Philadelphia’s Catholics as a “hard-liner” — as if, perhaps, he were an Iranian mullah — a disconnect and an incoherence was exposed. The Christians in Iraq — and those who make missionary pilgrimages there — witness to trust in Jesus and the courage to serve others as if they are Him, as they are made in the image and likeness of God. Asked about Pope Francis on Fox, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., said: “He sounds and looks a lot like Jesus would have sounded like.” That is not to make us feel good, but an invitation to truly know God, and live as the Gospels say; this is a challenging way and not one with comfortable categories that keep us ideologically secure.
Christians flocking to help the displaced show us the radical call of the love that was demonstrated on the Cross, the whole point of Holy Week. They show us Christian hope. They live Easter, every day.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.