ERBIL, Iraq — Cardinal Timothy Dolan remembered the anguish in the voice of a Christian martyr’s mother. The Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, informally called Iraqi Kurdistan, is a haven for many such mothers, whose tears watered the day’s march from Mosul and their ancestral home, the Nineveh Plain.
“They taunted me as they were murdering my son; because they said, ‘She is a Christian; she must forgive us,’” Cardinal Dolan recounted, as the mother held before him the picture of her beloved son. When militants from the Islamic State group, known as Daesh by its foes, overran Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in June 2014, more than 110,000 Christian inhabitants of northern Iraq — Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, but all the descendants of ancient Nineveh — literally walked away from all of their earthly possessions rather than give up their faith. As Cardinal Dolan and a delegation of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) saw during a trip to the region earlier this month, some even gave up their lives.
In this April 14 interview with the Register, Cardinal Dolan speaks about his visit with Christian refugees, their powerful witness of faith, love and sacrifice, and American Christians’ duty to support vigorously the suffering Christians who have given all — families that have given the Church martyrs — to confess Jesus Christ as Lord.
When you went to Iraqi Kurdistan to visit the Church there, what did you see?
What I saw was this blend of terrible sadness, and yet amazing charity and hope. Sadness, because these people who had come from Mosul or the plains of Nineveh — their families go back centuries and centuries, some to the time of St. Thomas the Apostle — had to abandon their homes in a couple of hours’ notice and couldn’t bring anything. They brought their children, obviously, and they brought their elders. The priests and nuns accompanied them on the [10-hour] walk, and they made it safely there. All these people want to do is go back home.
What’s hopeful is that they still have an extraordinarily vivid faith — their resilience is nothing less than profound. What’s moving as well is the remarkable charity and hospitality with which the Christians of Kurdistan have welcomed them.
You and the CNEWA delegation visited with the displaced Christians and other refugees in Erbil and Dohuk. What was it like?
So, we toured a number of camps. There would be thousands of these people in the refugee camps, which are actually rather secure and safe and where the local Christians have opened up schools, medical dispensaries and pharmacies. The people there will be the first to say that they are well taken care of — so, thanks be to God — because of a lot of international Christian support, and, yes, some support from the Kurdistan government and the Iraqi government.
At least they have these secure makeshift caravans, which we would call “trailers,” to live in. And the camp seems to be secure, and their needs and health and food are taken care of, as well as the education of their children. So the charity that has been shown them is remarkable. As you might imagine, the needs are great, and that’s why organizations like Catholic Near East Welfare Association — I went as a member of that board — CRS [Catholic Relief Services], Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Malta and the Knights of Columbus have all been heroic in their generosity.
How would you describe the condition of the local Church?
The local Church is very, very vibrant. We stayed in the Christian section of Erbil, and it was remarkably vibrant. We visited the seminary, where there are 22 young men studying for the priesthood.
We had Mass, where there were just huge crowds of people who worship so beautifully, reverently and joyfully. We went to Babel College, which is an institution of higher learning for philosophy and theology for the seminarians, the sisters and those lay leaders. We saw the dreams of Archbishop [Bashar] Warda for an eventual Catholic university.
The people also said to us: “[Daesh] may have taken our homes, and may have taken away our past, they may have threatened us, and split up our families, but they cannot take away our faith.” That, in such a ringing way, was the depth of their faith. We found it so very, very moving.
What were some of the most memorable encounters on that trip?
At one of the schools we met this French woman who had come over to volunteer, teaching at the school. She said to us that they have a little chapel in the school with the Blessed Sacrament and that, every day, her duty was to bring [students], class by class for 15 minutes, into the chapel. She said, “All I do is try to teach them to pray. If I can teach them to pray — to know God, who is their Father, who loves them and listens to them, to know that God lives his very life in their hearts and souls — if I can teach them to pray, then they’ll get through these crises.” And I thought, “My, oh my, there’s: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God’ — ‘Do not worry about those who can destroy the body: Worry about those who can destroy the soul.’”
Then, there were these omnipresent, beautiful Dominican sisters, and one of them said to me, “You see the children: A year ago, when we opened the school, they all were sad; they all were crying; they all had [lost] friends. Now, they smile.” I could see the children were so happy, and the sisters were so good. They seem to be blessed with vocations.
I was very moved, as well, by the loyalty of the priests and sisters who had stayed with their people. I mentioned to the seminarians that “Pope Francis speaks about having the smell of the sheep, and Pope Francis encourages us to accompany our people, and your priests are doing that.” I said, “We just came from the camp, where the priest showed us around, and the people told us that when they first got there, they had yet to have trailers and had to sleep outside under tents. But their priest, even though he had a home to go to, slept outside with them, because he said, ‘I must be with you; how can I go home to a house when you, my people, can’t?’” So that loyalty of the priests accompanying them, and the sisters, and the obvious good shepherding of those bishops, I found to be very, very moving, as well.
What moved you most of all?
I found the lack of rancor to be very inspirational; yes, there’s a high sense of the injustice of it all and a deep wound that these fanatics could run them from their homes, divide their families and kill their neighbors. There’s a deep sense of injustice there and a plea that the world would continue to fight this militant genocide by these fanatics. But they didn’t seem to have hatred or rancor.
One of the ladies said to me while I was visiting — I went into her caravan, where she showed me a picture of her son; he’d only been married about a month — she had to watch as Daesh murdered him. That mother said, “They taunted me as they were murdering my son; because they said, ‘She is a Christian; she must forgive us.’” Can you imagine?
That mother saw her son murdered in front of her eyes by these fanatics, who then taunted her that she had to forgive them. And she said, “I do. I do forgive them; I do try to forgive them.” That was worth a whole retreat for me to hear that.
These are amazingly good, decent, believing faithful people, who ask if the world has forgotten them, who ask if anybody knows what they’re going through — which made the visit worthwhile, because that is really simply what we wanted to do: Tell them that we do know what they are going through, we do hear them, and we will not forget them.
Benedict XVI once observed that when the Nazis sought to destroy the Jews in the Holocaust, they also aimed to destroy the Church by destroying Christianity’s very taproot. Do you see something similar at work in this genocide of Christians in Syria and Iraq — they literally are the Assyrian and Aramean peoples recorded in the Bible, who received the Gospel directly from St. Thomas?
Of course, we need them for our roots. When I was with my brother bishops and priests, I said we feel like babies. I come from the Archdiocese of New York, which is 208 years old. I said, “Your ancestors in the faith probably were there at that first Pentecost in Jerusalem.” St. Thomas himself came to them. They have their liturgy, their chants and their sacred texts. We met one bishop who had to flee Mosul, and he had just 20 minutes to gather up these ancient manuscripts — now, the memory of the faith — and he would cry as he told us, “I couldn’t get many; I just had to keep grabbing and grabbing and putting them into a sack; and that’s all I took: just some of the manuscripts and the sacred books and vessels.”
These are our roots, and we see them displaced, see them threatened and see them wondering about their very survival. Now, we know that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, but we also know that they never stop trying. And that’s what these people are going through. … They are really martyrs to the faith; they are martyrs to love, because they want to forgive, and they are helping each other so much.
In Amoris Laetitia (Love in the Family), Pope Francis said we have to do everything we can to help the Middle-East Christians stay in their ancestral lands. What do you tell people from the parishes who say, “Cardinal, we want to help. What can we do?”
You’re right, everybody asks that. And I asked them, “What can we do?” They start, always, with asking for prayers — and we sometimes think that’s a throwaway line — but they said, “Please remember us in prayer.”
I can remember growing up: We were daily aware of the suffering of Christians behind the Iron Curtain. We prayed for them daily, we prayed for them at every Mass, and we heard their stories. Now, we have to do that in our prayers with the persecuted Christians of the Mideast and beyond. I mean, look at what’s going on in India and Pakistan. The persecuted Christians must be part of our daily intercessions.
No. 2: We have to try to take care of them! If they don’t have the basic needs of survival — and, thanks be to God, they do have elementary housing, medical care, food and education for their children — we have to see that they have that and keep that, because if they don’t have that, they will despair and leave. So we have organizations such as CNEWA, CRS and Aid to the Church in Need to support these people to do that. I asked the archbishop of Erbil if he would give me a list of the needs that they had, and I brought it home with me. I’m going to try to circulate that soon.
And then, thirdly, we don’t want to forget our advocacy.
One of the priests said the last thing we need here are more arms, more bombs — but on the other hand, they do know that there does need to be some type of measure that is a military response to the bloodthirst of the fanatics of Daesh. But I think they mean [they want] more in the way of advocacy with governments, for some type of international protection and vigilance over these people who are suffering.
What spiritual lessons could Catholics in the United States really learn from these Christians — the people you saw who had lost everything and were packed into church singing?
We learn, first of all, that our faith is indeed as Jesus said: our “pearl of great price.” We tend to take it for granted, but these are people who literally have lost everything, rather than give up their faith. So, first of all, we learned the primacy of faith. We learned that we need to ask ourselves: Are we prepared to live our faith in such a way as we are ready to die for it? Because these people are. They will give up anything but their faith. As one lady said, “They can’t take our faith away from us.”
No. 2, we learn the importance of solidarity. This is the lesson of St. Paul in Corinthians come alive: When one member of the body suffers, all suffer. So we are suffering with them, and we cannot be callous to their suffering. So that solidarity is a second lesson.
Thirdly, we learn the importance of hospitality and charity, in that, even though it’s a long-range hospitality, we’re all at home in the Church. I said to them, “You know I don’t understand your language, we look different from you, we have come from a nation far, far away — and yet, I feel at home with you, because we are members of the household of the faith, and we are one.”
And that’s so very true. It is that hospitality, that unity, which moves us toward charity for these people — a very active charity — and we can’t just forget them.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.