Catholics in the Arab World
“We will pray for Daesh [the Islamic State] ”
The Holy Year of Mercy is hailed with joy from Iraq to Morocco – Catholic voices are heard throughout the Arab world
The Holy Year of Mercy that was solemnly inaugurated by Pope Francis on December 8 in Rome is being hailed with joy by Catholics throughout the Arab world – from Morocco all the way to Iraq and Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has gathered these impressions from across the Middle East.
Father Dankha Issa is a monk of the Alqosh Chaldean order. Last summer, hundreds of Christian refugees found refuge in the city after their villages were seized by jihadists. The ancient, exclusively Christian city is situated in the northern part of Iraq. As the crow flies, only about 15 kilometers separate the monastery of the Virgin in the Corn Field from the front line of the Islamic State. At night you can see the lights of the Islamic State from the mountains of Alqosh.
“We are very thankful to Our Holy Father that he has proclaimed a Holy Year of Mercy. It is a time of grace for us,” the priest told ACN. He himself had been forced to flee IS from Mosul last June. “This Jubilee gives us new hope. Let us hope that this year will extinguish the fires of hate and bring peace.”
It is important for Father Dankha that the Christians of Alqosh experience the goodness of God that delivers us from sin. “In this year our attention is particularly drawn to how merciful God is with us sinners. God forgives us. But this also means that we have to forgive each other. Even the people of Daesh (IS), who have done so many evil things to us. After all, as a Christian you also have to love your enemies.” Father Dankha knows that this is anything but easy. “This is almost humanly impossible. But it is easier through faith. God is capable of everything.” Father Dankha’s particular wish is that the jihadists will change their ways. “Of course we hope that God will open and soften the hearts of the people of Daesh so that they cease their murderous doings. Let us pray that he will dispel the hate and violence in their hearts and let love take hold.”
His monastery wants to make it possible for the refugees to experience the mercy of God over the course of the year. “We will continue to support them with food and the like. However, we especially want to pray together, above all the rosary. This is what makes it possible for us suffering limbs of the Body of Christ to become one with the universal church and the Pope.”
To love as Jesus did
In Lebanon, Father Raymond Abdo wants to use the Holy Year as an opportunity to give a Christian response to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. “The people who persecute Christians have to come into contact with Jesus Christ. Mercy thus means not allowing ourselves to hate these people,” the Carmelite from the northern city of Tripoli said. “We need the courage to pray for them and to love them. Because when they persecute Christians, they do not know what they are doing. This is what Jesus did on the cross.”
According to Father Raymond, what is decisive in this Year of Mercy is to love, as Jesus loved, people of other religions as well. “The church in the Middle East plays a role in many institutions that are visited by non-Christians. We have to love these people and show the mercy of the Gospels to them by example. Jesus did this with the Gentiles.” In the school in which he teaches, 65 per cent of the students are Muslim. “Respecting the Muslim students the same as the Christian ones: this is what mercy means to me.”
The Year of Mercy is also receiving attention in Gaza. Over the past years, the narrow Palestinian strip along the Mediterranean has experienced several Israeli-Palestinian wars leaving hundreds dead, thousands injured and tens of thousands homeless. Nowhere else is the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as brutal as it is here.
More than 1.8 million people live in the densely populated area. There are only about 1,300 Christians. The number of Catholics is hardly higher than 160. Father Mario da Silva is the priest of the Catholic parish of the Holy Family, who are said to have passed through today’s Gaza Strip on their way to Egypt.
Bringing his assistance to the conversion of hearts
The Brazilian from the Argentine Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE) has been living in Gaza City for several years. During this time he has witnessed several wars. “This Holy Year is a big chance,” he told the charity. “TWe Christians can re-learn what the mercy of God means. This includes re-thinking the reality of sin. We are dependent upon the forgiveness of God. This is an opportunity to find out something new about the sacrament of penance.” his is why Father Mario wants to offer retreats in the summer that will address the mercy of God. The Sunday Sermons this year will also repeatedly focus on the subject of forgiveness.
Father Mario believes that interpersonal forgiveness grows out of God’s mercy for humans. “From the first moment I arrived in Gaza, of course I felt the hatred that the people harbour because of Israeli politics. This hatred is rooted in the injustice the people here experience every day. It may be less pronounced among the Christians because forgiveness belongs to our faith. But of course they also know this feeling. That is only human,” Father Mario said. “The wars, the destruction, the high unemployment rate that also affects the Christians: all this eats away at the people. However, as a priest I do not feel it is my first priority to change the political situation. That is not in our hands, even though the church of course draws attention to injustice as such. However, what we can do is to help convert our hearts.”
Reintroducing a culture of forgiveness
In Egypt as well, which borders on the Gaza Strip, the focus is on the conversion of hearts. For several months now, Father Beshoi has been the priest in Azareia, a Christian town in Upper Egypt near Asyut. The Coptic Catholic cleric wants to make the sacrament of penance more accessible to his parishioners again. “We need the forgiveness of God. Here, there are a lot of cases of revenge because of insults to family honour. These are often caused by something trivial. But the situations escalate until there are casualties. And that, even though only Christians live in our town. But they have assimilated to the Islamic culture that surrounds us. In Islam, God is only seen as a lawmaker who metes out punishment when His commandments are not heeded. However, I want to change this mentality. I want to show God to my brothers and sisters as a merciful Father who forgives us. However, this is also why we have to forgive each other. Thus, the Year of Mercy has come at just the right moment for me.”
There are many problems especially among the adolescents in the town. “Many take drugs because they feel unloved or misunderstood. I want to show them that God loves them and is waiting for them with open arms. I know that God can work miracles in the souls. Just recently, an almost 60-year-old man came to me for confession: for the first time in his life! I hope that I will see many such small miracles over the course of this year!”
The Holy Year is also being celebrated at the outermost Western edge of the Arab world. Admittedly, there are hardly any Catholics living in Morocco and the vast majority of these are foreigners. However, the few Catholics who are there take an active role in the life of the world Church. Such as the Sisters of the Carmelite convent of Tanger. “We embrace the Holy Year with pleasure and gratitude. It is a great grace that we want to experience together with the entire church. With all of our poverty and weakness and in recognising our sinfulness, we are on our way to the Father, whose embrace we have need of,” Sister Maria Virtudes said to ACN.
The Spaniard is the prioress of the community of Sisters who began the Jubilee with a prayer vigil. “We prayed to the Lord who is present in the Eucharist. In doing so, we took turns in singing the hymn that was composed for the Holy Year and held long moments of silent worship. As we did this, we were, together with the Immaculate Virgin, in communion with the entire Church.”
By Oliver Maksan: ACN International
Adapted by : Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada