April 13, 2016
A ‘Family’ Visit to Kurdistan
Like many of you, I was raised with a high value on visiting people, especially when there was adversity. A neighbor a block over had a fire; the next day we visited to see how they were doing and if they needed anything. Uncle Ed had eye surgery; we visited to make sure he was recovering. After my grandpa’s death, we visited my grandma a lot.
A whole episode in the Gospel is actually called the Visitation, when Mary went to care for her kinswoman, St. Elizabeth, as she, at an advanced age, was pregnant.
The most sublime example of all, of course, is the Incarnation, as God Himself took our human nature, our flesh, and came to visit us in the person of Jesus Christ.
I first returned from a visit to Kurdistan, an autonomous region within the nation of Iraq. Why did I go? Well, for one, because my brother bishops there invited me to come. Two, because the Christian community there is family, a family in a lot of trouble, with much adversity, and to visit them is a very good thing.
They have asked, “Does anyone know of our plight? Have people forgotten us!” I wanted to visit them and answer, “yes” and “no.”
You know of their sorrows. ISIS has as their mission to exterminate the ancient tiny Christian minority, who have been there since the time of the apostles, long before Islam. There, Christian communities are small in size, but big in faith, tradition, worship, education, and charity.
They only want to be left in peace, in their villages, to raise their families and practice their religion. Fanatics have slaughtered them, and driven them from their homes.
Now they are called IDPs—
“internally displaced persons.” They walked days from their homes in Mosul and their villages in the Plains of Nineveh, to sanctuary in Erbil and Dohuc, two major cities in Kurdistan, where they have been welcomed heroically.
One renowned agency that is helping the local Church care for them is the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), headquartered here in New York. Bishop William Murphy and I are board members. Along with Monsignor John Kozar, the president, we went to visit these affected people in Kurdistan.
Were we saddened by what we saw? You bet we were! Brave people, tens of thousands, given hours to flee their homes (or have their throats slit, or convert to Islam). They knew there were Catholics and Orthodox Christians relatively safe in Kurdistan, so they walked the two-day journey there, carrying their babies, a few sacks of possessions, propping up their elders, accompanied by their priests and religious sisters.
To see their tears, their anguish, their situation, and to hear their plea over and over, “We just want to go home!” saddened us for sure.
But we were also deeply moved by our visit. The Christians in Kurdistan, often in partnership with Islamic neighbors, have welcomed them. They have camps for them, with food, medical care, clothing, blankets, and schools. Priests, nuns, and devoted lay leaders have embraced them. This charity inspired us.
As did their faith. One of the teachers in a Catholic school run by Dominicans sisters for the IDPs told us that each day she would bring the children to the little chapel to pray, “If they know God loves them, that He lives in their souls, that He never abandons them, that they can speak to Him, they can survive.”
One of the sisters observed, “The children when they first arrived here frowned...now they grin.”
The Sunday Mass we celebrated in a village was jammed; it was reverent, joyful, spirited. As one woman told me through a translator, “We have our faith. No one can take it from us.”
These are the persecuted Christians we are asked to pray with and for; these are the “homeless” who need our help through CNEWA, Catholic Relief Services, Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Malta, and the Knights of Columbus; these are family, members of the household of faith, who look to the Church, and to America, for a voice, for advocacy, for protection.
It was an honor to visit them.