Alejandro Bermudez is director of ACI-Prensa, the world’s largest Catholic news agency in Spanish, as well as the executive director of Catholic News Agency. He spent Holy Week and Easter with displaced Christians in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and talks with me about what he saw and learned and prays. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What was it like praying with the people of Erbil?
Alejandro Bermudez: Moving and transforming beyond words. Keep in mind that the Chaldean Catholic liturgy is celebrated in Aramaic. That means two things: First, there is no way I will understand. Second, they speak in the same language Jesus spoke. Not to understand a word but at the same time know you are united in a powerful prayer just reaffirms you in the universality of the Church and the reality of the Catholic belief of the “communion of saints.”
Lopez: When did you get there? What were the Holy Week Services like?
Bermudez: I got there on Holy Thursday in the morning, just in time to spend the Holy Triduum — that is, the core of Holy Week — with them. The Chaldean liturgy is extremely solemn, with many chants that are very ancient and dramatic. The celebrations are much longer than the Latin ones, but the participation of the people is absolutely intense, deeply involved. You don’t see distracted people. They really pray what they believe and vice versa. And despite not understanding a word, you are powerfully carried away.
Lopez: Is there a typical life for a refugee there?
Bermudez: Thanks to organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need, some of the Christian refugees have the opportunity to get a job in construction, building houses for their fellow displaced Christians. But that is unfortunately a minority. Men go every day out to try to get a job — something especially hard to do because of language barriers and religious prejudices, while women stay taking care of the kids, preparing food, and praying. They nevertheless are anything but passive about the situation, and that’s the reputation Christians have in Kurdistan: creative, honest, and with a strong work ethic. I have seen, for example, young Christian girls volunteer as catechists, teachers, or day-care managers, turning many of the U.N.-provided tents — hardly a place for living — into classrooms, kindergartens, or chapels.
Lopez: What most surprised you?
Bermudez: The incredible joy, charity, and generosity of the Christian refugees. They lost everything; nevertheless, they go out of their way to make you feel welcome, comfortable, taken care of. They offer you food, lots of tea — which is delicious, by the way — and are so focused on your well-being that you feel as though you were the one in need. They can barely get what they need, but they still try to help the poorest of the poor — the Yazidi refugees — who are despised by the general Muslim population and suffer greater hardships.
Lopez: What did you see the most?
Bermudez: Parents concerned for the education of their kids, and so many children looking for something to do — a safe place to play, a tent to bring them together, a passage to the local school system. Parents and teenagers know that the chances for them to go back or emigrate are close to zero, and they know that only with education will they be able to improve their lives.
Lopez: What did you hear the most?
Bermudez: The stories of how they were forced to leave their homes. I spoke to many refugees from Mosul, Tikrit, and Qaraqosh; only about 10 percent were threatened directly by Islamic State militants. The vast majority where threatened and forced to leave by their Muslim neighbors, people they knew for decades, who shared meals, celebrations, common needs . . . every aspect of a friendly daily life. All of a sudden, when the arrival of ISIS was imminent, they turned on them and demanded their conversion to Islam or to leave, leaving everything behind. I heard different versions of this story time and again. The shock of these Christians seeing their Muslims friends turn on them in a split second still hurts deep.
Lopez: What did people ask for? What do they want? What do they need?
Bermudez: Jobs, to improve their living conditions, and education for their kids. The Archdiocese of Mosul, led by Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, is trying to find ways to start Christian schools, but that requires lots of funds.
Lopez: How did being over there shape your views on what’s going on, what U.S. policy should be?
Bermudez: I left my heart in Erbil with my fellow Christians. I still have lots to process at a personal level, but at a political and international level the plight of Christians is very clear. They need the U.S. to use its international influence to enforce a U.N. resolution that would recognize the right of Christians and Yasidis to their land, their homes, and their property. In that way, if peace comes back to their regions, they will have the right to reclaim their possessions taken away by Muslim neighbors. Without such a resolution, which would force the Iraqi government to provide some semblance of religious freedom and legal protection, Christians will have no reason to return to their land, and emigrating will be the only option. Let’s keep in mind that the Christian population in Iraq, which was around 1.2 million during Saddam Hussein’s regime, is now only around 300,000 — most of it concentrated in the Kurdish-controlled area, where they have found temporary safe haven.
Lopez: What’s the most practical thing anyone reading this can do to help?
Bermudez: I saw quite clearly that the vast majority of Catholics would be living in terrible conditions if it weren’t for the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in need. They have been crucial in providing acceptable living conditions, food, and medical care. They are reliable, effective organizations. A dollar sent to them is a dollar that will reach the refugees directly.
Lopez: Do you worry that ISIS will, as it has said, conquer Rome?
Bermudez: No, I don’t. The total insanity of their beliefs and actions is self-defeating in the long term. Take, for example, Mosul. They took it by force, they forced out Christians, who happened to be the driving force of the local economy. They now control a totally collapsed city. They control the territory, but for what? That doesn’t mean that they are not capable of inflicting a great deal of damage worldwide. You can’t underestimate the destructive capacity of an extremely determined, deranged organization.
Lopez: If the pope went there, what might the impact be?
Bermudez: I know for a fact that Pope Francis is seriously trying to get there. He wants to convey how close they are to his heart and to the heart of the universal Church. They have not been abandoned. I have seen how much the signs of solidarity and love mean to our fellow Christians. They feel energized and happy by every bit of personal solidarity. I could see their joy and hope go up during the Easter Vigil celebrated at a large tent outside Erbil, when Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the papal envoy, greeted the crowd on behalf of the Holy Father. Could you imagine the impact if Pope Francis comes in person? The benefits for them, from the spiritual to the political, would be immense.