Hearing the hidden cry of the Innocents

Gathered before Jesus crucified, we hear his words ring out also for us: ‘I thirst’ (Jn 19:28). Thirst, more than hunger, is the greatest need of humanity, and also its greatest suffering. Let us contemplate then the mystery of Almighty God, who in His mercy became poor among men.

What does the Lord thirst for? Certainly for water, that element essential for life. But above all for love, that element no less essential for living. He thirsts to give us the living waters of His love, but also to receive our love.

The prophet Jeremiah expressed God’s appreciation of our love: ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride’ (Jer 2:2). But he also gave voice to divine suffering, when ungrateful man abandoned love – it seems as if the Lord is also speaking these words today – ‘they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water’ (v. 13).

It is the tragedy of the ‘withered heart’, of love not requited, a tragedy that unfolds again in the Gospel, when in response to Jesus’ thirst man offers him vinegar, spoiled wine. As the psalmist prophetically lamented: ‘For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’ (Ps 69:21).

‘Love is not loved’: this reality, according to some accounts, is what upset Saint Francis of Assisi. For love of the suffering Lord, he was not ashamed to cry out and grieve loudly (cf. Fonti Francescane, no. 1413).

This same reality must be in our hearts as we contemplate Christ Crucified, he who thirsts for love. Mother Teresa of Calcutta desired that in the chapel of every community of her sisters the words ‘I thirst’ would be written next to the crucifix. Her response was to quench Jesus’ thirst for love on the Cross through service to the poorest of the poor.

The Lord’s thirst is indeed quenched by our compassionate love; he is consoled when, in His name, we bend down to another’s suffering. On the day of judgment they will be called ‘blessed’ who gave drink to those who were thirsty, who offered true gestures of love to those in need: ‘As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt 25:40).

Jesus’ words challenge us, they seek a place in our heart and a response that involves our whole life. In His ‘I thirst’ we can hear the voice of the suffering, the hidden cry of the little innocent ones to whom the light of this world is denied, the sorrowful plea of the poor and those most in need of peace.

The victims of war, which sullies people with hate and the earth with arms, plead for peace; our brothers and sisters, who live under the threat of bombs and are forced to leave their homes into the unknown, stripped of everything, plead for peace. They are all brothers and sisters of the Crucified One, the little ones of His Kingdom, the wounded and parched members of His body. They thirst. But they are frequently given, like Jesus, the bitter vinegar of rejection.

Who listens to them? Who bothers responding to them? Far too often they encounter the deafening silence of indifference, the selfishness of those annoyed at being pestered, the coldness of those who silence their cry for help with the same ease with which television channels are changed.

Before Christ Crucified, ‘the power and wisdom of God’ (1 Cor 1:24), we Christians are called to contemplate the mystery of Love not loved and to pour out mercy upon the world.

On the cross, the tree of life, evil was transformed into good; we too, as disciples of the Crucified One, are called to be ‘trees of life’ that absorb the contamination of indifference and restore the pure air of love to the world.

From the side of Christ on the Cross water flowed, that symbol of the Spirit who gives life (cf. Jn 19:34); so that from us, His faithful, compassion may flow forth for all who thirst today.

Like Mary by the Cross, may the Lord grant us to be united to Him and close to those who suffer. Drawing near to those living as crucified, and strengthened by the love of Jesus Crucified and Risen, may our harmony and communion deepen even more. ‘For He is our peace’ (Eph 2:14), He who came to preach peace to those near and far (cf. v. 17). May He keep us all in His love and gather us together in unity, that path which we are all on, so that we may be ‘one’ (Jn 17:21) as He desires.

Pope Francis

 

VISIT OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS TO ASSISI FOR THE WORLD DAY OF PRAYER FOR PEACE “THIRST FOR PEACE: FAITHS AND CULTURES IN DIALOGUE” ADDRESS OF THE HOLY FATHER, Assisi, Tuesday, 20 September 2016


This article can be found in Mirror 0816.


Drowning in Tears - Refugee Crisis

The father of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who died as his family tried to make it to Europe, has condemned world leaders’ failure to end the bloodshed in his home country.

On 2 September 2015, the harrowing picture of Aylan’s body washed ashore on a beach in Turkey shocked the world. The heartbreaking image of Aylan became a symbol of the migrant crisis, but his father, Abdullah Kurdi, has accused politicians of failing to act.

As well as Aylan, Mr Kurdi lost his elder son, Galip, five, and his wife, Rehab, 35, after their boat capsized.

‘The politicians said after the deaths in my family: “Never again”,’ Mr Kurdi, 41, told German newspaper Bild. ‘Everyone claimed they wanted to do something because of the photo that touched them so much. But what is happening now? People are still dying.’

Kurdi, now lives in a guarded community in Erbil, Iraq, broke down in tears as he said he saw no reason for living without his family.  ‘Now I’m probably safer than I’ve ever been in my life,’ he said. ‘But for what?’

As many as 400,000 people have been killed in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011, with thousands more dying in Iraq following the rise of ISIS.

More than four million people are estimated to have fled the violence in Syria as refugees, with many of those heading for Europe.

But thousands have died en route, with scores of boats crammed with migrants capsizing in the Mediterranean.


This article can be found in Mirror 0816.


Syria - How long will it continue, O Lord?

A couple of pairs of scissors, combs, hairclips, a hairdryer – and Gracia can get back to working as a hairdresser and be able to feed her family. An old sewing machine, a bit of material, some shears, thread and binding – and Claudine can get back to her dressmaking and so stop her family from going hungry. It‘s just the little things that are needed. The Good Shepherd Sisters are helping to provide the tools they need. But they too need support and encouragement, for sometimes their strength can also falter.

How long? asks Sister Lolita of the congregation of Our Lady of the Good Shepherd in Damascus. ‘How long will these henchmen of the devil still be allowed to rampage? Can there ever be peace again in this country, for this savagely beaten and openly bleeding body that was once the Syrian people?’ People are asking themselves, ‘What have I done? Why has my home been destroyed, my future ruined, my children slaughtered, mutilated or enslaved? How much longer must we endure this suffering?’

Sister Lolita can recall all too many such stories of suffering. Every day she visits families who barely escaped death and who – despite all their hardships – are infinitely grateful to her. Ahmed used to live in Raqqa with his wife and two little girls, Hiba and Selena. He ran a small tailoring business and, thanks to his skilful hands, they managed to make a modestly comfortable living for themselves. Then the barbarians of IS arrived. ‘Indiscriminately shooting, they murdered old and young alike, burned down houses, drove the people from their homes. I grabbed hold of my wife and two daughters and ran for it, hearing shots behind me. Then they hit me in the left leg, and I also felt bullets in my back. I let go of Selena, told her to run to mummy and dragged myself after them.’

They managed to reach their relatives in a nearby village, and continued their journey the next night, finally ending up in Damascus. Ahmed stares ahead, eyes unfocused, forcing back the tears, and says, ‘I am so grateful to God that we have found a place to stay here for my wife and our two little angels.’ His wife strokes his hand, paralysed since that night, and tells Sr. Lolita, You are the shining light of our lives; with you we will overcome everything.’ 

This war has been going on for six years now, writes Sister Lolita, and there is no end in sight. ‘Six years in which young people had hoped to build their future and not lose it, in which families hoped to see their dreams fulfilled and not disintegrate into daily nightmares, six years when children should have been born and not killed, when young women and men should have married and not been plunged into disaster. How long must we still endure this?’, Sister Lolita asks.

he has no answer. No one does. She only knows that she and her fellow religious will keep on helping with the little things and with great love, like the Good Shepherd, so that the littlest and the helpless do not lose all hope. ‘For every soul counts in God‘s eyes, every life matters, every child is a prayer, an appeal from God to us.’ We are helping these sisters, so that they can help others. It is our responsibility too to make sure that no one gives up hope.


This article can be found in Mirror 0816.


Rebuilding their Church – The First Priority

‘We must not put obstacles in the path of the Merciful Father’, says Pope Francis. And he adds: ‘Instead we must pray for the gift of a strong faith, so that we can be signs and instruments of mercy.’

The ‘strong faith’ of these Christians from Qusair, near Homs is not in doubt. They are returning to their small, devastated town – and the first thing they want to do is rebuild the church of the Prophet Elijah. It was partially destroyed during the bitter fighting that led to the expulsion of the population.

Now the IS fighters have been expelled in their turn. The Christians want to return home: to a normal life; to the sound of the church bells; to children going to school; to shopping for their groceries. As little Zeina Kasoha says, ‘Now we‘re back home. I love our town, and I want to go back to school again here.’ And she asks us not to forget her, or the other children, so that they can continue their education and one day be there for others too.

Her faith has sustained her, as it has others. Now they want to bring life back to the ghost town of Qusair, starting with their church bells. The sound of the bells has great symbolic importance in the Middle East, It says: We are people of goodwill; this is a place of peace. Christians are a vital part of the religious mixture in the towns and villages of this region, a binding element… ‘We belong here’, says Father Louis, and he too has big plans.

By rebuilding the church with an adjoining suite of rooms, it could become a catechetical centre. At the same time the sisters will once again have a home, and a parish and community centre will be built.

In their desire for education and their zeal to spread the Gospel message by their peaceful presence, young Zeina, Father Louis and the other returning Christians in Qusair are like so many other Christians in Syria and Iraq. They long to be signs and instruments of mercy. Their hands may be empty, but there is the light of faith in their eyes – and the hope that we will stand by them in rebuilding their society.


This article can be found in Mirror 0816.


For the Strength to Persevere

It was Syria’s Christians who translated Aristotle and Plato into Arabic.  It was Syria’s Christians who taught philosophy and the natural sciences in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. It was Syria’s Christians who served as the models for Arabic philosophers and so opened up a narrow window of hope – hope that Islam would become more open to reason and peace.

That was over a thousand years ago. In the meantime Christians in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon have suffered greatly. Their witness is stamped upon the history of the region, and as long as they continue to live in the cradle of Christianity their witness will retain its power.

The meaning of this witness is engraved on their very souls. Their homeland is more than their place of origin: it is the homeland of the spirit of love and hope.

In paying the rent for Christians expelled from their homes – and now refugees within their own country – we are also giving hope a home. In sending food parcels to tens of thousands of families in Syria and Iraq – parcels that are truly survival packs – we are not just saving individual Christians, but a way of life that holds the promise of peace for the region.

In helping to preserve the Christian presence there, we are providing security for today and confidence for tomorrow. A Middle East without Christians would be a region deprived of its soul, a region cut off from its past.

All these things remain unspoken, but they are in the air in Latakia as Father Issa Abdo and his helpers hand out aid parcels to displaced families – a few kilograms of flour, a couple of pounds of rice, sugar, noodles, cooking oil and milk powder; then another little parcel with soap, toothpaste and shampoo. All treasured items for these families, who could otherwise never afford them. Each parcel should last for two weeks.

When it comes to their rent, we aim to cover six months, for that is the minimum time it will takes them to find work and somehow get back on their feet. And no one else is helping to pay for the security of four walls and a roof over their heads.

There are 1,800 of these families in Iraq, and 27,000 in Syria. Their spirit, their way of life, their history lives on in these homes. Though they may not know it, they carry the ‘household of faith’ (Gal. 6:10) in their hearts. This is the real house for which we are paying the rent.


The Statistics of Suffering

After six years of civil war, three in every four Syrians now live in extreme poverty.

  • 13.5 million – that is how many people depend on help for their survival.
  • Almost 9 million of them barely have enough to eat.
  • 11 million were driven from their homes or forced to flee.
  • 6.5 million internal refugees in Syria itself.

Estimates by international agencies of the number of those killed range from 250,000 to 470,000. And another 1.9 million have been wounded or traumatised.


This article can be found in Mirror 0816.


On the suffering in Syria, Iraq and the World

We must note with great sadness that despite extensive efforts made in a variety of areas, the logic of arms and oppression, hidden interests and violence continues to wreak devastation on these countries and that, even now, we have not been able to put an end to the exasperating suffering and repeated violations of human rights. The dramatic consequences of the crisis are already visible well beyond the borders of the region. This is seen in the grave phenomenon of migration.

Violence begets violence, and we have the impression of being caught up in a spiral of arrogance and inertia from which there is no escape. This evil which grips our will and conscience should challenge us.

Why, even at the cost of untold damage to persons, property and the environment, does man continue to pursue abuses of power, revenge and violence? This is the experience of the mysterium iniquitatis, that evil which is present in man and in history and which needs to be redeemed. Destruction for destruction’s sake.

And so, I am reminded of the words of Saint John Paul II: ‘The limit imposed upon evil, of which man is both perpetrator and victim, is ultimately the Divine Mercy’ (Memory and Identity). It is the only limit. Yes, the answer to the drama of evil lies in the mystery of Christ.

Seeing the many suffering faces in Syria, in Iraq and in the neighbouring and distant countries where millions of refugees are forced to seek shelter and protection, the Church beholds the face of her Lord in his Passion.

The work of so many workers in the field, who are committed to helping refugees and to safeguarding their dignity, is certainly a reflection of God’s mercy and, as such, a sign that evil has limits and does not have the last word.

This is a sign of great hope, for which I wish to thank you, and also the many unnamed people – though not nameless to God – who are praying and interceding in silence for the victims of conflicts, particularly for children and the weak, and who in this way are also supporting your work. In Aleppo, children have to drink polluted water!

Beyond the necessary humanitarian aid, what our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq want more than anything else today is peace. And so I will never tire of asking the international community for greater and renewed efforts to achieve peace throughout the Middle East, and of asking not to look the other way.

Putting an end to the conflict is also in the hands of men and women: each of us can and must become a peacemaker, because every situation of violence and injustice is a wound to the body of the whole human family.

This request is my daily prayer to God, to inspire the minds and hearts of all who have political responsibility, that they may be able to renounce their own interests in order to achieve the greater good: peace.

Finally, my thoughts turn to the Christian communities of the Middle East who suffer the consequences of violence and look to the future with fear. In the midst of so much darkness, these Churches hold high the lamp of faith, hope and charity.

As they courageously and without discrimination assist all who suffer and work for a peaceful coexistence, Christians in the Middle East today are a clear sign of God’s mercy. They have the admiration, recognition and support of the universal Church.

I entrust these communities and those who work at the service of victims of this crisis to the intercession of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, exemplar of charity and mercy.

Pope Francis

 

Adapted and edited from ADDRESS OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS TO MEMBERS OF CATHOLIC ORGANIZATIONS SERVING IN IRAQ, SYRIA AND NEIGHBOURING TERRITORIES Clementine Hall,  Thursday, 29 September 2016


This article can be found in Mirror 0816.


Schools of Mercy in Erbil, Iraq

Just before the first anniversary of the flight of more than 120,000 Christians on August 6 2015, Catholic bishops from northern Iraq contacted Aid to the Church in Need.  In two Chaldean dioceses and one Syriac-Catholic diocese, provisional schools were erected from prefabricated components for children and young people who were forced to flee from the terrorist group ‘Islamic State’ (IS) along with their parents in 2015.

‘We would like to thank you for your kind support for our community during this difficult time, when thousands of Christian families were forced to leave their homes and properties due to the ISIS attack last June to August 2014,’ said Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil. 

‘We are especially grateful for your help for our students in building 5 schools for them in our archdiocese, the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil, which were completed in the city of Ankawa on land owned by our archdioceses.’ Two of the five schools are consequently being used for about 1,100 students aged 18 to 25 who were forced to flee, including not only Christians, but also Muslims and Yazidi.

The Chaldean Bishop of Zakho and Ammadeya, Rabban Al Qas, also thanked Aid to the Church in Need: ‘The Chaldean diocese of Zakho and Ammadeya will take full responsibility for the administration of two schools dedicated to internally displaced persons. Thank you so much for your kind help and caring love. We assure you of our prayers for our benefactors and ask for your prayers. May God bless you all with His care and love.’

Another school is being run under the auspices of the Syriac-Catholic Archdiocese of Mosul, Kirkuk and Kurdistan. Archbishop Youhanna Botros Moshi recently wrote to Aid to the Church in Need, ‘We are especially grateful for your help in supporting our pupils by building a school in the city of Dohuk,’ the Syriac-Catholic archbishop said.

By building the schools from prefabricated parts Aid to the Church in Need wanted to help prevent the pupils concerned from having to go without schooling for the as yet unforeseeable duration of their exile. In all, about 7,200 mainly Christian children are to be taught in what are now eight schools. They will be taught by teachers from the Christian towns currently occupied by ISIS. The central government in Baghdad will pay for the upkeep of the teaching staff.

The classrooms are to be used not only for schooling, but also for catechetical instruction and other church activities.


This article can be found in Mirror 0516.


On being God’s Mercy to the Muslims in Iraq

It’s 1998 and a young Iraqi, Douglas Al-Bazi, is being ordained to the priesthood in a joyous ceremony. Fast-forward nine years: the priest is chained to a chair, lathered in sweat and blood, lost in an abyss of pain.

The allied invasion of Iraq began in April 2003 and Saddam Hussein was soon ousted. But the intervention unleashed an unprecedented wave of sectarian violence, with Sunni and Shia groups seeking to exterminate each other. Militants on both sides viewed the invasion as a Christian crusade and Iraqi Christians as collaborators.

As Iraq lost all semblance of order, anti-Christian persecution increased in ferocity. Fr. Al-Bazi, a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church, worked assiduously to help his people deal with bomb attacks on churches, kidnappings and indiscriminate killing. He cycled the narrow, deserted streets of Baghdad, delivering medicine to residents of his neighbourhood. He also set up a pre-school for Christian and Muslim children.

‘I used to visit mosques and meet their imams and I enjoyed a healthy relationship with them,’ Fr Al-Bazi told me recently. ‘Some Muslim houses in my area had a picture of me handing out graduation certificates to their children and their parents used to say that “our children got their certificates from the Pope”.’

Daily life was extremely dangerous. Fr. Al-Bazi survived a gunshot to his legs and three explosions – one of them at his church. ‘As a priest living in Baghdad, sometimes we had the feeling that when we go out we won’t be going back again,’ he recalls. ‘A kind of one-way ticket.

His parish in the working-class area of New Baghdad dwindled from 2,500 families in the 1990s to fewer than 300. After celebrating Mass on Sunday, November 17, 2007, Fr. Al-Bazi set off to meet some friends. Suddenly two cars surrounded his vehicle and forced him to pull over. Masked men rushed towards him, dragged him out and bundled him inside the boot of his car.

‘After a drive, the car came to a stop and they pulled me out of the boot, tied and blindfolded,’ he says. ‘I was placed in a utility room outside a house. I felt someone’s knee in my face. My nose was bloodied and broken. Crimson rivulets ran down my face. My heart banged against my ribs as if it wanted out.’

Fr. Al-Bazi pauses briefly, then continues in a deadpan manner. ‘One of my captors came to wipe my bloody nose and he warned me not to open my eyes, otherwise he would put a bullet through me.’

‘They tried to give me false hope, telling me that there had been a case of mistaken identity and I would be released soon. A barrage of questions were pummelling my mind. Then I heard the sound of a chain scraping the floor. This was the beginning of my gruelling ordeal which lasted nine days.’

The first question his captors – Islamist militants – asked was whether he was Sunni or Shia. ‘In those days it was a crime punishable by death if you wrongfully accused someone of an incorrect faith. I told them they were individuals deprived of a good education and upbringing and people were taking advantage of them. A kind of stillness descended on the room. Suddenly they burst into vociferous conversation, blathering about the misfortunes that had befallen their families and resulted in them being what they were today.’

‘The gang told me they would call the Church and demand a ransom. One of them said: “How much do you think your people will pay – $1 million?” I told him: “I am not the prime minister. I am just an ordinary priest. Do not get your hopes too high. Besides, you should wait for a few days before making a call: you will look more professional.” He muttered a derisive comment and said: “Normally the people we bring here plead for their lives, but he does not seem to care.”’

At night, when Fr. Al-Bazi was alone, he felt a chaotic surge of feelings and memories. ‘After being deprived of water for several days I started to hallucinate and saw my mum and sister and many people passing by and asking: “Do you want water, Father?” Next morning they came and gave me some water. These days whenever I wake up in the middle of the night I stretch my hand out to touch the bottle of water. It reminds me that I’m still alive.’

As he goes on with his story there is a touch of defiance in his voice. ‘Sometimes I was aggressive with them. I told them: “If you’re men, you would put a bullet in the gun and kill me.” That only made them beat me harder. They asked me why I wasn’t afraid of death. I told them: “For me, death is the beginning. But for you it is the end.”’

‘One of them heaped insults on me. I felt his glare on me like the heat of the blistering sun. He placed an empty revolver against my head and pressed the trigger.’

But the fear they sought to instil in him only seemed to increase his selflessness. ‘When you are in such a situation, you don’t think about yourself,’ Fr Al-Bazi says. ‘You only think of the people you’ll be leaving behind. I told them: “Before you kill me, I have one request: please inform my people that I
am dead.”’

Curiously, when they weren’t threatening him, his captors treated him as a spiritual father. Often they would complain to him about their hardships and ask his advice. During the day they addressed him as ‘Father’ but at night as ‘infidel’. In the morning they would apologise for hurting him, claiming that his body had to show signs of torture, otherwise their boss would punish them.

‘One of them had problems with his wife and he asked me to guide him with his marriage,’ he recalls. ‘I told him that he must love his wife and respect her and be tolerant towards her. Another one always complained about his knee and would seek my advice on how best to treat it.’

‘One of the captors told me I had a big belly and should start thinking of how to reduce it. He gave me some guidance on how to lose weight, and we became very close. He told me: “Someone is coming tonight to interrogate you and whenever I hit you, make sure you scream. If you don’t, he will ask me to hit you harder.” That night I was interrogated and as the beating started I did not scream. After they left he was furious with me and shouted: “I told you to scream when I hit you! Why didn’t you?”’

Fr Al-Bazi kept track of time by marking days on the wall with his handcuffs. In a voice brittle with emotion, he says: ‘As I looked at my chain I realised that it had 10 rings. I used them to recite the rosary. It gave me solace and hope. This was one of the deepest and most moving rosaries that I ever prayed in my life. I kept praying and hoping it would never end. It was the strength of my faith that illuminated my tortuous journey and helped me to survive despair in captivity.’

Fr. Nadheer Dako, a Chaldean Catholic priest who now lives in London, served as a negotiator. ‘The kidnappers contacted me and allowed me to speak to Fr Douglas and he told me what had happened to him,’ he says. ‘The gang demanded a very high ransom for his release. After several attempts we failed to agree to a lower ransom and I told them that the Church considered Fr Douglas as one of its martyrs.’

Fr. Al-Bazi says the kidnappers seethed with anger. ‘They told me: “We have all night to take out all your teeth, and you have plenty of them.” And the beating began. They hit me with a hammer on my jaw and broke my front tooth. This was followed by several hammer blows to my back which resulted in two broken vertebrae. The pain was excruciating. My mouth was pumping out blood.’

‘One of them told me: “We are going to cut off your head and replace it with a dog’s head. Then we will cut your body bit by bit.” His friend replied to him: “Are you stupid? You should cut the body first and then the head.” My laughter at their asinine conversation made them angry and they started beating me with their pistols. They said: “Why are you laughing? You are not at a picnic.” I told them: “When I am dead you can do whatever you like with my body.”’

Throughout his captivity Fr Al-Bazi was given bread and cold tea. The kidnappers would leave him for several days on his own, shrouded in darkness. He used humour as a defence mechanism. ‘On the seventh or eighth day they brought me some cold tea and half-rotten bread. I tried to make a joke and told them: “Why did you bring me cold tea? Is it because I am a Christian?” One of the captors murmured in a condescending tone: “His life is in our hands and he is complaining about his tea.”’

‘The most hurtful thing I endured, more than the physical pain, was the vile insults they directed at me, my family, friends and my Church. They realised that this was my weakest point. I felt nauseated whenever I heard their words and tried to withdraw into my own world.’

On the 10th day the gang told him that a ransom had been agreed with the Church and he would be released. ‘I was put in the back seat of a car and I could hear the gun: “Click! Click! Click!” My nerves throbbed with anticipation. I thought I was drifting perilously close to death.’

‘One of them told me that he was the one who had broken my nose. He asked whether I would forgive them for what they did to me. I was shocked by the tenderness of his voice and I told him: ‘Yes, you are completely forgiven.’ And he said: ‘Do you really mean it from the bottom of your heart?’ I said: ‘Yes, and maybe one day we will meet and have lunch or tea, provided your hands are not covered in someone else’s blood.”’

‘When the car stopped, they told me to walk straight ahead without looking back and that I would find my keys in the ignition of my car. Of course, there was no car. I took a taxi and told the driver I had no money to pay him. He looked at my state and told me not to worry. He dropped me at the nearest church and when the priest, Fr Jamal, saw me he rushed towards me and gave me a warm hug.’

‘Now, amid the welter of anguish, I felt a strange sense of relief. Finally knowing my ordeal was over, I burst into unstoppable tears. That first night I kept all the lights on. I also turned the radio and TV on just to believe that I was alive.’

Fr. Al-Bazi says he holds no animosity toward his kidnappers. He now lives in Ankawa, northern Iraq, where with the help of Aid to the Church in Need he has built a refugee camp for Christians fleeing ISIS. He tells of wanting to return to Baghdad to meet the men who held him captive.

‘I forgive, but I will always remember,’ he says. ‘I cannot forget the pain, the loneliness, the ache. But I will never remember to inflict retribution on them. I pray to God that he takes away the evil from their hearts.’

Robert Ewan

 

Adapted and edited from the May 27 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald.


This article can be found in Mirror 0516.


Syria - Bearing the seeds of reconciliation

Nowhere in Syria is safe today. But there are some towns in which there are fewer car bomb attacks and where suicide bombings in crowded market places or outside public buildings are not so frequent.

There is no such thing as normal life in Syria. But there are at least some places where, occasionally, water runs from the taps and the electricity supply is switched on for a few hours, where some food and medicines are still obtainable and where teachers can still teach the children about the world. Today, Homs is such a place once more. There are many Christians living here also, and they want to stay.

Jesuit Father Sammour Nawras is caring for them. In fact he is their pastor, their master builder, teacher, nurse, driver, electrician, delivery man – and so much more besides. In fact he is the one who organises their survival. ‘They just want a little normality’, he says, ‘a little bit of peace, here in Homs, their home town.’

This little fragment of peace and normality is something they can also savour in the monthly basket of food supplies which – thanks to your help – Father Sammour is able to distribute to 400 of the most needy of these families. For the cans of tuna, the packs of spaghetti, the sugar, cheese, flour and tea bring a little warmth and love from the outside world back into their bombed-out homes. An additional 450 families find a little bit of fresh hope in the help you provide towards their rent, without which they would be forced to leave their homes. Again, for around 500 individual Christians, your love is present in the medication without which many of them could not even survive. For the cost of food and medicines is still beyond the reach of most of them.

Of the 16 hospitals that once served Homs and its district, ten no longer function, while the rest are overfilled. For the past five years even attempting to get to school or university meant daily risking one’s life. Now, thanks to your help, around 600 students can at least benefit from the comparative safety of school transport, without which they could not get to their schools and other educational institutions.

All these small, practical forms of help are organised by Father Sammour, and the sum total of them is what gives the Christian communities here the courage to stay on in their home town of Homs. All in all, the hope you are giving Father Sammour and his people helps them hold out and withstand persecution, the hatred of the fanatics and the calculating indifference of the mighty ones.

So often it is the Christians who find themselves trapped between government troops and rebel fighters, and permanently in danger of being ground down, or even driven out. But at the same time they are the ones who bear the seed of reconciliation in their hearts.

Their faith in Jesus Christ is their faith in love and forgiveness. Your gestures of solidarity help to keep alive the hope of peace in these Christians of Homs. And there is nothing this ravaged country needs more than such heralds of hope and love.


This article can be found in Mirror 0316.


The Heroic Witness of Fr. Jacques

As head of Mar Élian monastery and of Qaryatayn parish, near Palmyra, Father Jacques Mourad was abducted by members of the Islamic State on May 21, 2015. He remained in captivity for four months and 20 days, more than 140 days, before being able to return, on October 10, to ‘the free world.’ Threatened with beheading several times if he did not convert to Islam, whipped and subjected to a mock execution, Father Mourad’s prison experience was a true way of the cross. In an interview with L’Orient, Le jour, he recounts in detail the ordeal he went through.

‘The first week was the hardest: After being held for several days in a car, I was taken, on Pentecost Sunday, to Raqqa. I lived those first days in captivity torn between fear, anger and shame,’ he says.

On the eighth day, an individual dressed in black entered his cell. While the priest believed his end was near, the man struck up a conversation. Father Mourad asked why he had been abducted. ‘Consider it a spiritual retreat,’ replied his jailer.

‘From then on, my prayer, my days took on a meaning, says the Syrian priest. How can I explain? I felt that through him, it was the Lord who sent me these words. That moment was a great comfort to me. Through prayer, I was able to regain my peace, said the priest. It was May, the month of Mary. 

We began to recite the rosary, which I did not pray much before. My relationship with the Virgin was renewed by it. 

St. Teresa of Avila’s prayer, “Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you…” also sustained me. One night I made up a melody for it, which I started to hum. 

Bl. Charles de Foucauld’s prayer helped me abandon myself into the hands of the Lord, well aware that I had no choice. For I had every indication that either I converted to Islam, or I would be decapitated.’

‘Almost every day someone entered my cell and asked me about my faith. I lived every day as if it were my last. But I did not give in. God gave me two things, silence and friendliness.
I knew some answers could provoke them, that just one word can condemn you. Thus, I was questioned about the presence of wine in the convent. The man cut me off when I started to answer. He found my words unbearable. I was an ‘infidel.’ 

Through prayer, the Psalms, I found a sense of peace that never left me. 

I also remembered Christ’s words in the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you.” I was happy to be able to live out these words. It is no small thing to be able to live the gospel, especially those difficult verses, which were previously only theoretical. I started to feel compassion for my captors.

Occasionally, poetic songs by Feyrouz also came back to me, especially one of them that spoke of dusk, which I sang when the long nights of June fell on Raqqa and we were left in the dark. Even these words and their music became a prayer. They spoke of the suffering “inscribed in the twilight.”’

Suddenly, on the 23rd day, his captors reappeared:

‘It was a kind of staging. The flagellation lasted some 30 minutes. The whip was made of a piece of garden hose and ropes. I was in physical pain, but deep down inside I was at peace. I had great comfort in knowing that I was sharing something of Christ’s suffering. I was also extremely ashamed, as I felt unworthy to have even a small share in our Lord’s suffering. 

I forgave my tormentor even as he was whipping me. From time to time, I gave a comforting smile to the deacon, Boutros, my fellow prisoner, who could hardly bear to see me being whipped so. 

Later, I remembered the verse where the Lord says that it is in our weakness that his strength is manifested

I was continually amazed because I knew that I was weak, both spiritually and physically. You see, I suffer from a bad back since childhood and the prison conditions were such that the pain should have grown greater. At the monastery, I had a special mattress, an ergonomic chair. In prison, I slept on the floor, and there was no way to do any walking.

“I experienced the greatest fear a little later,” said Father Mourad, “when a man armed with a knife entered our cell. I felt the blade of the knife on my neck, and I had the feeling that the countdown for my execution had begun. In my fear, I recommended myself to God’s Mercy. But it was only a horrifying sham.”’

 

In August 4, the Islamic State seized Qaryatayn. The next day at dawn, the population is taken hostage and brought to Palmyra. A few days later a Saudi sheikh entered the priest’s cell: ‘Are you Baba Jacques?’ he asked. ‘Come! Some Christians from Qaryatayn have been bothering us about you!’

‘I thought that I was being taken away to be executed. Sitting in a van, we drove for four hours straight. Beyond Palmyra we took a mountain path that led to a building secured by a large iron door. 

When it was opened, and what did I see? The whole population of Qaryatayn, amazed to see me. It was a moment of unspeakable suffering for me. For them, an extraordinary moment of joy.

Twenty days later, on September 1, we were brought back to Qaryatayn, free, but we were forbidden to leave the village. A collective religious contract was signed: we were now under their protection (ahl zemmé) upon payment of a special fee (jezyé), which non-Muslims have to pay. 

We could even practice our rites, provided that it not offend any Muslims. A few days later, after the death of one of my parishioners, who died of cancer, we went to the cemetery, near the Monastery of Mar Elian. Only then did I notice that it had been razed to the ground. Curiously, I did not react.

Inwardly, I seemed to understand that Mar Élian had sacrificed his convent and his cemetery in order to save us.’

A few days later Father Mourad defied the ban of leaving the city to return to the free world.

‘Today,’ he says, ‘I still feel for my captors the same feeling I had for them when I was their prisoner: compassion. This feeling comes from my contemplation of God’s gaze on them, despite their violence, which is the same one that he has for every man: a gaze of pure Mercy, without any desire
for revenge
.

I know that prayer is the way of salvation. We must continue to pray for the bishops and priests who are still missing and about whom we know nothing. We also need to pray for a political solution in Syria.’ 

 

Translated from the French by Liliane Stevenson.


This article can be found in Mirror 0316.