John Burger came to the Register in 2001 as a staff writer after working as a reporter for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a master’s degree in English from Iowa State University and has taught in China and France.
Paulos and Maryam are refugees from Iraq. They came to the United States six months ago, after spending a year and a half in Turkey as asylum-seekers under a U.N. program.
They are part of the flood of Christians who have left countries like Iraq in the face of Islamist persecution. And countries like Iraq, which were once proud Christian lands, are seeing the ancient Christian communities disappear.
I am using pseudonyms in referring to them because they — and their family members back home — are not out of danger.
And what does that danger look like? We’ve seen plenty of it on the news — and continue to, unfortunately. Some of the worst happened in Baghdad last October, and Paulos wanted to make sure I knew about that. So when I visited the couple in their tiny apartment this week he showed me a YouTube video about the 51 people who were killed in Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Cathedral on that bloody Sunday.
I wanted to learn more about the life Paulos and Maryam lived back in Iraq, and we did our best with their limited English, my three or four words of Arabic, and Google Translator. Paulos, 32, told me about how life in his native Mosul had deteriorated, with “people” (he refused to be specific) threatening local Christians. Mosul is in the most Christian part of Iraq, but these “people” (“you know who they are,” he said) lately were giving Christians an ultimatum: Get out or die. Occasionally, protection money would come into play, but if I understood Paulos correctly, even that was no guarantee of ultimate safety. Conversion was also an option, especially if one wanted a job.
It’s not something Paulos, a stone mason, would have considered.
“I cannot change,” he said. “I might die, but I cannot change.”
Bombings of churches and attacks on Christians escalated. One of Paulos and Maryam’s neighbors had his throat slit with a broken CD. The couple saw the body after it happened.
They ultimately moved to a nearby town, Qarah Qush, which was predominantly Christian. But bombings and attacks persisted.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” he said. “I couldn’t go to the police.”
And, he said, U.S. forces failed to protect Christian places.
So they, like so many Iraqi Christians, fled to Turkey.
The two feel pretty sure that it was the stress of living in such fear that prevented their ability to conceive even after several years of marriage. It wasn’t until they became refugees that they became expectant parents.
The first time I met Paulos was a couple of months ago at a reception held by the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants in the basement of St. Joseph’s Church in New Haven, Conn. This group meets monthly for Mass, then prays all 20 mysteries of the Rosary outside one of two locations where abortions are performed: Yale-New Haven Medical Center (in the Children’s Hospital, of all places) and Planned Parenthood (with its close ties to the 1960s Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, the precursor to Roe v. Wade).
The Helpers of God’s Precious Infants was founded by a Brooklyn, N.Y., priest, Msgr. Philip Reilly, who sought a peaceful, prayerful alternative to some of the pro-life activities that were grabbing headlines back in the 1980s, such as Operation Rescue. Msgr. Reilly’s approach: Begin with Mass, the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, and then “stand at the foot of the cross” outside an abortuary, keeping vigil with Mary as her son is crucified once more in the “distressing disguise” of the immolated unborn child.
Paulos and his wife, who is 25, were not abortion-bound. He was walking to a local agency that helps refugees when he saw a large group of people, some with rosary beads in their hands, some with posters of unborn children. It was the rosary beads that struck him.
“Is this Catholic?” he asked Ivana Solsbery, who stood apart from the group of pray-ers — because she was “sidewalk counseling” and handing out pro-life literature and rosaries, another aspect of the Helpers ministry. “I’m Catholic,” he told her.
In his broken English, he was able to convey to her that he needed a job. Ivana, who is a health aide for the elderly when she’s not doing pro-life work, couldn’t turn down Paulos’ request for help, especially since he and Maryam, now married for six years, are expecting their first child. She brought him to the Helpers’ coffee hour to ask if anyone knew of any job openings. As a refugee, he had a work visa.
I tried to speak with Paulos, but I didn’t really know what to make of him. He was a young male from Iraq. Was he a terrorist? Could we trust him? He told me he was an Assyrian Christian. I asked him to say something for me in Aramaic — the language Assyrians use in their liturgy — not so much to test him as to satisfy my curiosity. I’d never heard the language spoken before. He made the sign of the cross, speaking the words in the language that Jesus would have used. I couldn’t make any of it out — I couldn’t even distinguish any of the syllables and couldn’t repeat it if I tried.
But I felt I could trust him.
The local chapter of the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants has organized baby showers for a number of women who decided on the doorstep of an abortuary to keep their babies. It’s always a great way to celebrate the triumph of life over death — and to give real material and spiritual support to young women who are perhaps overwhelmed with anxiety when they should be feeling the joy of expectant motherhood. It seemed natural, then, to fete Maryam in this way, even though she had never considered abortion.
“As pro-life people living within and among the strong current of the culture of death it is important that we show our support and love for the gift of life in every circumstance,” said Kerry Guidone, who with her husband, Michael, directs this chapter of the Helpers. “If we truly are followers of Jesus Christ and we want to build a culture of life we must praise every circumstance where life is chosen and support that life whenever it is needed.”
And so, following the latest prayer vigil outside Planned Parenthood, we threw a party for Paulos and Maryam — and the little one, whatever his or her name might be. Maryam could give birth in a matter of days. Who knows, it might happen on Easter. The couple hopes to find an Assyrian church where they can baptize the child in their traditional way.
For Kerry Guidone, getting to know these Iraqi Christians has been an experience more of receiving than giving. “How heartbreaking it is for us to read or learn that our Christian brothers and sisters are still being persecuted so brutally today,” she wrote in an email to members of the Helpers. “These modern day ‘martyrs’ dying for love of our Lord and His Church, remind us how we can often take for granted the gift we have to practice our faith so freely in our own country. It was not until I met this faith- and grace-filled young woman, that I began to put a face to these horrible crimes that are befalling our Christian brothers and sisters — just as we put a face to our faceless pre-born brothers and sisters, the holy innocents of today, which we pray and sacrifice for daily. God helped me to truly see the face in [Maryam] of the very least of His people.”
Meanwhile, Ivana visits the couple regularly. “Her parents aren’t here,” she said. “For the first baby, it’s kind of scary” for the mother.
“Ivana is like my mother,” Maryam said. “Her face is kind of like hers, and she is acting like my mother now.”
Oh, and one more thing: While we were indulging in a little mid-Lent feasting at the baby shower and watching Maryam open some neat gifts, Kerry made an announcement.
“There was a save today,” she said. “A girl on the way in (into Planned Parenthood) decided to keep her baby, and she said it was your prayers that made the difference.”
Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!