On Aug. 6, 2014, after evening Mass on the feast of the Transfiguration, the Christian residents of Qaraqosh, Iraq, were threatened by the Islamic State to convert to Islam, pay a tax or be killed. That prompted the exodus of the city’s 50,000 Christians, who fled to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Qaraqosh, a bed of Christianity since the first century, was totally Syriac Catholic. Syriac-Catholic Bishop Barnaba Yousif Habash of the Syrian Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance, based in Bayonne, N.J., is a native of Qaraqosh. He describes his birthplace as “the biggest island of Christianity in the Islamic ocean.”
One of the Syriac-Catholic patriarchs, the bishop says, referred to Qaraqosh as “the right eye of the Church.” In Aramaic, the language of Jesus, the expression “right eye” means “you are very precious to me.”
Bishop Habash is responsible for the spiritual needs of Syriac Catholics in the United States and Canada, covering 18 parishes and totaling approximately 40,000 people.
Bishop Habash traveled to Erbil to spend the holidays with the more than 100,000 displaced Christians who were uprooted from Mosul and Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, as well as from Qaraqosh, by the advance of the Islamic State. The exiled Christians are still camping out in tents and uncompleted buildings in harsh winter conditions. Among them are priests, nuns and two bishops.
Bishop Habash’s ancestors from Qaraqosh include 16 priests, among them a martyred bishop. At 64 years old, he is the oldest of five priests currently in his extended family, one of whom he recently ordained. In addition, there is a Habash who is a candidate for the priesthood.
Bishop Habash spoke in early January with Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad at the Syriac-Catholic patriarchate in Beirut, Lebanon, where he stopped after his visit to Erbil before traveling to Rome and back to his eparchy in New Jersey.
There have been media reports from Erbil; and, most recently, before Christmas, a delegation of Catholic bishops from Australia went to visit the displaced in Erbil. But how was it for you, going back to your homeland and seeing your people in such conditions?
You can’t even imagine. Even a picture cannot express and show the misery. If you don’t know a person, you cannot really comprehend the suffering. But when you do know them, then you understand how the misery, the suffering is so deep.
As a bishop of the United States and Canada, I came to show solidarity. I came to let them know: You are not forgotten.
I have been born in their midst. I have been raised with them, so I cannot forget them. And my country, my Iraq, my history, my education, my civilization means a lot to me, not because it’s mine, but because I know it’s a very precious and a rich element of the history of the world.
I was not only shocked, I was not only facing a horrible scandal; I became paralyzed. My spirit, my mind could not work with what I saw there: tens of thousands of people not just suffering, but dying, in the most offensive way.
We have tens of thousands of kids under tents who are not attending school or university. There are about 1,000 university students who could have in one year become doctors, engineers and lawyers. They have been stopped. Why? Why close the paths of the future for Iraqi people just because they are Christian? What a shame.
Why? The jealousy of the devil is what happened. This storm, what happened to them, you can easily call it the jealousy of the devil.
They are Christians; they are authentic people. They are hard workers for peace. They love the others. They love their country. And all of a sudden, they have been told it’s not allowed for you to continue with Christianity without paying a tax, although we are in our land 600 years before Islam, although we were the teacher of the prophet of Islam. We were the teachers of the language of Islam; we were the teacher of the law of Islam; we were the engineers of the buildings and cities of Islam, since the beginning, until recent days. We are their doctors, as we were before; we are their professors. We taught them everything, until the last hours of our existence. Their sick were brought to our hospitals, treated by our doctors.
Qaraqosh has 50,000 people, and, until now, there is not one hotel in the city. Isn’t that amazing? When people visit the hospitals, the schools, for shopping, they stay in our houses as part of the family. We do it with pleasure, for them (Muslims). It is part of our Christian education and morality to accept the others and to give witness to our faith.
But you know what, on the other hand, I found myself strengthened by their faith. I visited more than 500 families in tents and uncompleted buildings. They said to me, “You are most welcome, Bishop.” And they have absolutely nothing. “Oh, you know what, Bishop, yes, we lost everything, but we still have our faith in the Lord Jesus.” Honest to God, almost every family said this: “We give thanks to the Lord. We are still Christian.” And our people were very convinced that, although they had been through a very evil storm, the arm of God saved them. They understood this very well.
Imagine: 24 hours for 50,000 people to escape Qaraqosh, and no one had been lost or injured. That’s why we believe in God, in that we were protected by the power of God. It’s the third exodus.
The people you met, what did they ask of you?
“Bishop, what do you think? You are close to the sources of authority (in the West). Please tell us: What do they say? Are we going back to our home? Please help us, Bishop. Help us.”
What can I do?
My childhood home, I cannot go there. I wanted to go to the cemetery to visit my dad, to visit my mom. I could not do it.
Most of the people in Erbil were hoping that, after or during the Christmas season, the Christian cities would be liberated, but they are shocked that still nothing has happened until now. The local powers in Iraq are gambling on us. One of the cards in the gambling is the “Christian card” — the existence of the “problem” of Christianity. So I guess we will have more waves of immigrants.
Is the Western world really understanding the gravity of the situation?
Without the role of the Church, the West could not feel that something happened, with what the Holy Father, the Vatican tried to do, and we should also say a big thank-you for the conference of Catholic bishops in Canada, America, in France, Italy and Germany.
But in general, no, they (the West) don’t know what’s going on. That’s a shame. Because the political West is really very selfish and uncaring. They don’t care, because it doesn’t affect the economy of their countries.
I came from Erbil, I saw the miserable people, the catastrophe, and I have to speak with diplomatic words and to hide the crime, the crime of the world? Because what happened is truly genocide: uprooting innocent people of the wonderful and peaceful civilization of Christianity in this part of the world. But, unfortunately, when you speak about human rights in Europe or America, it is only for your people inside your country. But concerning the outside, the other human beings: “No, we don’t care; it’s their problem.”
I say that about the (Western) politicians, not ordinary people. Americans are the most generous people, the most fine, with their love and with their respect. But the foreign politics is from hell. Nobody cares about us.
We are not terrorists. We are not violent. How come no one cares what happened to us?
When we speak out, we get the routine answer from the Islamic religious or the Muslim authorities: “They are non-Muslim, the Islamic State.” How can it be, they are non-Muslim? All of them are Muslim. Or: “They work outside of the Islamic world.” So who is the financial source of ISIS? It’s very clear; it’s Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, no one has the guts to say that. Who is fighting Syria? Who is supporting and financing the war against Syria? It’s very clear: Saudi Arabia.
If the West believes in connecting civilizations, there is no bridge but Eastern Christianity to be the bridge between the civilizations. But unfortunately, unfortunately, what’s happening is destroying everything, because the storm is the devil’s storm.
What is the outlook you see for the Christians?
The last hour of my stay there (in Erbil), I spent with the Dominican nuns. (The 40 nuns of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena also had to flee their convent in Qaraqosh on Aug. 6 and are still among the exiled in Erbil, serving the displaced.) The mother general, Sister Maria Hanna, named (by Our Sunday Visitor) as one of the eight Catholics of 2014: I met her with the nuns.
I told the sisters my strong belief: that we should not count on the political leaders; they will do nothing for us. Because they look only for their own interests.
We should look for the one who helps us. This is the witness, the truth of history. We should look to the holy Eucharist. Nothing is stronger than prayer. All the weapons are killers. The only weapon that we believe is the life-giving and peace builder: Not one weapon is stronger than prayer.
Without prayer, there is no reconciliation between the Kurds and Arabs, between the Shiites and the Sunnis. So if they don’t have peace between themselves, how can we expect to have peace for them or through them? The only thing that we can and must count on is prayer.
Please go and pray: in front of the holy Eucharist; in front of the tabernacle with the silence of Jesus, we could hear the voice, “My peace is given to you.” This is my essential and strong belief that the map of work is prayer.
I tell them: Go pray with people, for the people. Jesus is strong enough to resolve our problems. Even if problems take a long time, we should not be afraid. Pray: The one who prays doesn’t fall down.
For me, Iraq is not just a country; it’s not geography; it’s not just history, but it is the history of my love with God. It’s a spiritual geography. I can see the Christianity of Iraq as one of the French historians said, the most holy piece of land on earth after Golgotha. Because this land has been watered with the blood of the thousands and thousands of martyrs and very strong lovers of Jesus Christ. That’s why I say it’s the jealousy of the devil, what happened.
But no matter what, we are strong, because we know in whom we have put our trust and in whom we believe.
Please pray for our people. They do need prayer. And these prayers will save us, surely, surely. All the iron gates made by politics, by religion, will be broken; all the Christians will be liberated like Peter, when he was in prison and the angel brought him (to safety).
I told them: If a Christian hurt a camel in Saudi Arabia, it would be a big problem. A small wall in Israel destroyed by the Arabs is a horrible thing, but if Christianity is uprooted, nobody cares. What is the media today? What is the politics? False witness. Why? Why doesn’t Israel say anything? Why doesn’t Saudi Arabia say anything? Why doesn’t Iran say anything? Why doesn’t America say anything?
It’s a storm of the force of the evil. But as Jesus was condemned and sent to die, we are an extension of Jesus. I’m sure God will show his arm one day.
I told them in my homily, “I came here to help you, but I became stronger because of you. I smell God here.”
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.