Missionary Couple Invites Catholics to Visit Iraq

Says Dioceses Need Support to Preserve Christian Communities

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By Genevieve Pollock

ARBIL, Iraq, MARCH 26, 2009 (Zenit.org).- A couple transplanted to Northern Iraq is rallying support for the Church in the region, which needs the worldwide community to aid its time of new hope and rebuilding.

Hank and Diane McCormick speak on behalf of several bishops and priests in Iraq, who are offering to help organize and accommodate pilgrims that want to come and help renew and strengthen the Catholic communities in the region.

In this interview with ZENIT, the couple tells their story, and appeals for the global Catholic community to help the dwindling Christian population preserve their presence and traditions in Iraq.

Q: How did you wind up in Northern Iraq?
 
Hank: As a missionary for communications and Church relations for SAT-7, a Middle East Christian satellite television company, my initial contact with Iraqi Catholics was to foster increased opportunities for them to share their voice in the Christian television programs of the Middle East.

We had been aware of the difficult situation Catholics in Iraq were facing, and were eager to meet with them.

Q: What is the situation of the Church there? What particular needs have you identified among the Catholic communities in Northern Iraq?

Hank: Thousands of Catholics have arrived in Northern Iraq over the past three years. In a two-month period, more than 10,000 families were displaced from Mosul alone, and resettled in the Diocese of Alquoch.

Catholics have experienced forced immigration twice in their lives. Early in the Saddam regime they were forcibly moved from their Kurdish villages and relocated to Baghdad and Mosul. Over the 30 years of the regime, those families made Bagdad or Mosul their home.

With the collapse of the regime, and the civil violence that followed, Catholic families became victims of religious persecution and financial extortion. They were murdered, kidnapped, and threatened with their lives.

Faced with these realities, their only choice was to leave, either to go abroad as refugees, or to head into Northern Iraq. Once again, they were uprooted.

In Northern Iraq, they are safe, but they are now a refugee community within their own country. The economic situation is difficult. The priests have resettled everyone in homes. No one is living on the street.

However, there are no jobs for these thousands of new people who have moved into the community. Many rely on help from family members abroad. As refugee families they receive a small monthly stipend from the regional government, but it is not enough to live on.  

The Catholic community needs jobs, educational opportunities, and health care. The Catholics possess the skills and experience to staff schools and hospitals within their new communities if such an opportunity were given to them.

Q: The bishops and pastors of Iraq wrote an appeal last month asking for support from American Catholics. How did this appeal come about?
 
Hank: The signatories issued this urgent letter of appeal as their personal invitation to the bishops and priests of the Church in the United States to come and meet with them, and to discuss development strategies to integrate the present Catholic population as vibrant members into their new communities.  
 
While it is possible to relay some of this information via reports, petitions and statistics, actual visits to the region are essential. Over the past two years, delegations from Western Europe have visited northern Iraq, and more are coming. Now, it is time, they pray, for bishops and priests from the United States to come as well.

The Catholic population in Iraq is at risk of disappearing due to such high rates of emigration. In order to preserve the Catholic presence there, a presence that dates back to the time of the Apostles, there is an immediate need for the universal Church to help the local Catholics engage in their new communities. This is a challenging task.  

Catholics had to flee their established communities, and settle in areas that are ill-equipped to absorb them. Many, for example, have returned to the villages of their fathers -- villages they were forced to evacuate forty years ago. Now, this essentially urban population has been resettled in an agricultural community that offers very few employment opportunities.

Also, in the North, which has welcomed the Christians, there are language barriers. Kurdish is the official language of the region, and the Catholics come speaking Surith (Aramaic) and Arabic.  

The Church was not completely prepared for the ensuing chaos which occurred after the fall of Saddam's regime, or the hostility and persecution that was directed against them. The tremendous numbers of Catholics displaced during those years left the Church scrambling for assistance. The priests and bishops worked alongside of the sisters, deacons, seminarians, and parishioners to see that all gained shelter and food. They are now developing strategic plans to help the Catholics engage in their new communities.  

An additional concern that the Church is facing is the presence of Evangelical Christians, who are converting Chaldeans, Syrians and orthodox. Often the methods through which these conversions occur are inappropriate.  

This is some of the background to the appeal. It is a heartfelt plea, inviting the bishops and priests to come to northern Iraq, as guests of the Chaldean Church, to see what is happening "on the ground," and to assist in developing a plan to help them succeed in their quest to live and thrive in Iraq.

Q: What has been your own personal experience in going to Iraq? How do you cope with fear or are you afraid?

Diane: My experience of going to Iraq has been a blessing. I will always be grateful to the Iraqis for welcoming us into their lives. They are people of faith with a strong sense of family and community. I admire them greatly.

We moved freely throughout the region without any difficulties. We stayed in Muslim hotels, ate, shopped, and rode in taxis throughout our entire stay and were continuously treated respectfully, pleasantly, and kindly.

Our biggest trouble was that our cell phone data plan did not work in Northern Iraq. But thanks to typical Iraqi hospitality, we survived this crisis. After days of trying to fix it on our own, we went down to the center of Arbil, to one of the numerous cell phone stores. The store was so crowded we could barely fit in the door. Someone behind the counter spotted us, disappeared into the back of the store, and reappeared with a young man who announced he was an English major at the university. His English was textbook perfect.

After looking at our phone, he asked us to follow him. He exited the store, went down the street, around the corner, and down some stairs to a basement. There sat his 20-year old friend who then worked more than half an hour deleting and adding various programs necessary to fix our data troubles. We not only had a delightful chat with these two young, up-and-coming Muslim business men, but they sent us on our way with our data capabilities restored -- and insisted there was no charge to us because we were foreigners in their country -- it was mere hospitality that they said they knew Americans would extend to them if they came to the United States.

My original lack of fear in going to Iraq was based on the guiding principle taught to us by Pope John Paul II: "Be not afraid. God is with you."

These words have been the source of our strength for years. Although they are what guided us to Iraq, on our arrival it was apparent that life was proceeding normally, and there was indeed no reason to be afraid.
 
Hank: It was a wonderful experience for us to visit the country. It was exciting to be with a people whose native language, Aramaic, is the language that was spoken by Our Lord.

We traveled throughout the region without fear. We met some of the Chaldean Catholics who had been victims of the post-Saddam violence. They remain cheerful, and hopeful.

It was sad for me to realize that the families of so many of these Catholics are split apart, with some members in the West, and others in Turkey or Jordan.

The work that the priests and religious are doing is a tremendous witness of Christ’s love. We met a priest from Baghdad who had been kidnapped once, shot in the leg in a second incident, and in a third incident, present in his church as it was bombed. He was up north for a visit, but was going back to his parish in Baghdad.

We visited the shrines of the martyred priest Father Ragheed Ganni, and Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul. These men died for Christ and his Church.

Archbishop Louis Sako, of Kirkuk, one of the signatories of this appeal, has been promoting Christian-Islamic unity on the street, in churches, and in mosques. Father Bashar Warda, rector of St. Peter’s Seminary, has overseen the construction -- and reconstruction -- of Catholic Schools in Baghdad, schools that are filled with students of all faiths. These schools are presently receiving enough tuition to cover the total costs of operating the parishes that the schools are connected to.

The Sisters of the Immaculate, and the Dominicans, are running orphanages, schools and clinics. I could see the face of Christ in these men and women and the work they do.

Q: You are planning to live in Iraq for the next few years to help the Church. Why?
 
Hank: The present population has survived decades of terror and violence under Saddam, a war with Iran, two Gulf wars, an international embargo, and the ensuing chaos that followed the fall of Saddam’s regime.

Today, amidst 28 million Muslim Iraqis there stand no more than 700,000 Iraqi Christians -- of whom almost 70% are Catholics. They have begun to rebuild their communities. They have begun to piece back together their lives in a new era of hope.
 
We will be honored and blessed to contribute in any way possible to help the Catholics in Iraq preserve their traditions and their presence in their homeland.
 
Iraq is a great place. There are great religious sites and archeological sites to visit, and there is much to do.

Iraqis are friendly and welcoming. We would like to help promote economic opportunity, create bridges between the Eastern Churches and the Church in the West, and participate in Christian-Islamic dialogue.
 
Q: How can the international Catholic community help the Church in Northern Iraq? What can motivate them to do this?
 
Diane: Bishops and priests from the Catholic Church in the United States and other countries can travel to Northern Iraq to see the situation first hand, and then share that knowledge.

Delegations from England and France have already visited, and Germany has made arrangements to go.

Catholic businessmen, investors, and economic experts can tour the area, and make recommendations on development and economic opportunities.
 
Parishes around the world can participate in the Adopt-a-Parish program. This program will connect Catholic parishes inside Iraq with Catholic parishes in the rest of the world.

We believe that an increased awareness, promoted by the Catholic media, of the opportunities for helping our Catholic brothers and sisters will motivate the international Catholic community.

We are called by baptism to spread the Gospel, and we are called to protect the innocent and the vulnerable. For years, the West has been deeply involved in Iraq’s political affairs, and this has had a profound impact on the entire country.

Now, as Iraq rebuilds, it is time to encourage Catholics to become directly involved in the lives of their Catholic brothers and sisters inside Iraq.

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On the Net:

Bishops' letter of appeal: http://charityandjustice.org/images/mechristians/letter.jpg

For more information:

The McCormicks: hmccormick@charityandjustice.org

Father Bashar Warda: bashar_warda@yahoo.com