A few weeks ago, four seminarians from Michigan embarked on a pilgrimage to Iraq. Iraq may seem like an unusual choice for a pilgrimage destination for most of us, but the country holds a special meaning for these four men. They are all studying to be Catholic priests for the Chaldean Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church that traces its roots to the region around modern-day Iraq and is presently headquartered in Baghdad.
The seminarians, Deacon John Jaddou, Deacon Fadie Gorgies, Perrin Atisha and Rodney Abasso, were all raised in the United States, but were keen to visit their ancient homeland, the place where their fathers received their faith. Undoubtedly, such a journey called for immense faith and courage, but these men stepped up to the challenge. Following a short visit to their Chaldean brethren in Georgia, these seminarians landed in Erbil, Iraq.
We’ve all heard about the atrocities that were inflicted on the people of this region, and in particular on Christians, by those belonging to the “Islamic State” (ISIS). Thanks to these four seminarians, we are offered a unique glimpse into Christian life in this troubled region. The seminarians decided to use their pilgrimage as an opportunity to show the world a new perspective of Christianity in the Middle East, through the regular uploading of videos and blog posts during their travels.
“Faith is a gift and it is a gift that has continued to live here in Iraq. Despite the destruction and the tragedies, the faith is alive here,” seminarian Perrin said.
Personally, I was very inspired by some of the stories these men shared. Indeed, what we don’t always hear is how after having withstood the worst of ISIS’ atrocities, many Christians in Iraq held on to their simple faith, and it is now shining forth with a renewed richness. One of the most beautiful images from their videos was a candle-lit procession of over a thousand people in honor of Mary in a town called Ankawa.
“When you think of persecution, the first words that might come to mind are despair and anger. All I’ve seen throughout Iraq is faith and love… ISIS can take our homes and villages, but they can’t take our faith,” Perrin said.
The early glimmers of hope for the Iraqi people under ISIS’ command came in recent months as Iraqi troops came in and liberated some towns and villages from ISIS. It has been truly heartwarming to read media reports of areas freed from ISIS’ control, allowing Christians to return to their hometowns. The most recent major victory, for Christians at least, was when Qaraqosh, once Iraq’s largest Christian city, was retaken by Iraqi forces.
However, as much as we hear such positive and uplifting news, we should also be mindful of the reality that still persists in the region. Many places in the Middle East are still under ISIS. Even among the areas that have been freed, the wanton destruction has made it very difficult for people to easily consider returning to their homes, with the added fact that security in the region continues to be very fragile.
As the seminarians on pilgrimage walked through some villages that have been freed, the stark images seen on their videos, served as poignant reminders of the awful things that occurred in these places just fairly recently. In some cases, villages have been completely destroyed and people don’t know when and if they can return. Churches have been desecrated too, with crosses and statues either demolished, shot at, or burned.
However, while some battles have been won, the war is clearly far from over. We have to continue praying for the victims of radical religious fundamentalism with hope that this conflict-ridden region will see peace one day. In particular, we need to offer up prayers and sacrifices for our Christian brethren all over the world who are still undergoing persecution in different forms. After all, we are all members of the Body of Christ. We ought to have concern for all the parts of the Body, and if one part suffers, all the parts ought to suffer with it (1 Corinthians 12: 25-26).
“(We should) never lose sight of God even in the midst of suffering. God never forgets his people,” Deacon Fadie said.
Prayers continue to be needed to root out fanatical religious fundamentalism, particularly since it is now spreading its tentacles to other parts of the world. It’s true that many of us, especially in the West, are growing tired of regularly hearing ‘negative news’ of bomb blasts, killings, and so on. But if that ‘weariness’ is a cross we have to carry to be regularly reminded of the awful daily realities of our brothers and sisters in troubled parts of the world, it is a small price to pay. Not only are they being forced to flee from their homes, but they are being forced to renounce their faith – a faith that has been handed down for generations.
“People can no longer return to the lives they once knew… I ask you to pray that their lives may be restored, their dignity may be restored, and please pray for all those who have lost their lives through war and suffering,” seminarian Rodney said.