The testimony given to the Youth Synod last week by Safa Al Alqoshy of Baghdad, Iraq, received the “most sustained applause” of any speaker so far, according to Bishop Robert Barron, one of the U.S. synod fathers.
Alqoshy, a 26 year-old Chaldean Catholic sub deacon, “gave a wonderful talk on the suffering of those being persecuted,” Bishop Barron said, adding that “we can be a little too first world about the concerns of young people and he was saying there are young people who are fighting for their lives.”
Speaking to the Register Oct. 12, Alqoshy, who is a dentist by profession, reminded Catholics in the West that although they have persecutions and challenges of their own to face, it is not an excuse to give up on the Church.
“You don’t go to Church because of a bishop or the Pope, you are going for God, for Jesus, because Jesus is the Church, in spite of all the things happening,” he said, and gave examples of Iraqi martyrs who have shed their blood to witness to Jesus.
“God knows what he’s doing,” the young Iraqi said. “We just have to be faithful, strong, stay in our place, and to reflect on the image of Jesus.”
He said he hopes the synod will give people a clearer picture of the reality facing Iraqi Christians, and asks governments to follow the example of Hungary, the only nation to have a ministry for persecuted Christians. Last week, a delegation from the ministry met the Holy Father along with 20 students from countries where Christians are persecuted. The students have been awarded scholarships by the Hungarian government.
What has been the most helpful aspect of the synod to you as a young Iraqi Christian?
The most important thing is to make people from other countries to know the reality. Social media and news don’t give the reality one hundred percent. Everyone gives their reality, from their opinion, or what serves them. So what I wanted to do was to give the complete picture of the reality, the voice of the young people and Christians of Iraq. Maybe then good progress will be made in support from the Church and countries.
What do you hope this synod will achieve?
I hope that the Church, the Vatican and the synod, in Europe and America, will result in giving more support, especially for places liberated from ISIS to be rebuilt because we have nearly 120,000 Christians who’ve been expelled from their villages and now can’t return because they don’t have place to stay. In Teleskuf, the Hungarian government is trying to rebuild it.
What’s preventing people returning?
People have psychological effects of what happened in 2014. It’s not easy to forget, so I think one of the most important needs of Christians is to have hope, to know that someone is thinking about them. It’s important people know this. Persecution exists around world and there are a lot of other problems around the world: sexuality, abortion, the weakness of the family, but of course there is a priority for peace and stability especially in places where Christians are considered minorities.
How are Christians treated in Iraq generally?
In Iraq, they say that Christianity is a minority but I don’t say that in Iraq they don’t like Christian people because, as a people or government, they are very peaceful and grateful for the Christians, in spite of some of the persecution in terms of the law, identity. We are better off than in some other countries, but terrorists are our problem.
What can the Church do directly to help young Iraqis like you to stay in Iraq?
This is one of the most important things because, you know, in 2003, the number of Iraqi Christians was 1.5 million, now it’s 400,000 or maybe less as we don’t have precise information because of emigration. When I speak with people who want to emigrate, I say: “We have stay here and witness to Jesus.” Someone said: “Yes that’s right, but can you guarantee my life, that I can form a Christian family in this situation? Who can guarantee that what happened in Mosul won’t happen in Baghdad?” I cannot answer that and the Church can’t either.
There’s still too much uncertainty?
Yes, it’s now better than past years, but anything can happen because there’s no stability. So it’s bigger than the Church, it’s related to the government and a lot of things. We say to refugees: “Come back to the villages.” OK, but if the houses are destroyed, they don’t have a job, they say: “We don’t have any reason to return except that this is our land.” So they need some circumstances to live with their family. To rebuild, they need some guarantees they will be secure in these places, and that the misery of 2014 won’t occur again.
What could change this?
Maybe if they hear Iraqi people and Christianity are supported by all the countries of the world. I start with Pope Francis and some of cardinals, bishops, and young people saying a few words to young people of Iraq, to support them. Next Friday, I will pass this on to young people at a meeting of young people to pray for the synod. They will know they are not alone, there are a lot of people praying for them, and a lot of people living in the same circumstances they are living in. We have to stay and witness to Jesus in the place where he created us. Christianity in Iraq dates back to the 1st century so it’s impossible to say: no more Iraq, and no more Christianity in Iraq. It’s impossible.
One bishop told the press last week we can learn so much from you, your strength of faith.
Do you know why? I don’t like to compare young people in Iraq to another place, but if we look at the circumstances: in Europe many people have fallen away from the Church but in Iraq, despite all these circumstances, nearly 90% of the people have a strong relation with the Church, they have a strong faith. So you can imagine if these people, living in normal circumstances, what they will do.
What would you say to these Western Christians who are disaffected with the Church because of sexual abuse, corruption in the hierarchy and so on?
I’d say this is not a reason. You don’t go to Church because of a bishop or the Pope, you are going for God, for Jesus, because Jesus is the Church, in spite of all the things happening. The martyrs who shed their blood, Father Ragheed [Ganni], Archbishop [Paulos Faraj]
Raho, Fathers Tha'ir Saad and [Boutros] Wasim shed their blood in church to witness to Jesus. They refused to leave in spite of a lot of threats. We’ve had a lot of priests kidnapped. Father Basel Yaldo is now a bishop, he was kidnapped for a long time but he was steadfast in his faith, he did not fear, because God knows what he’s doing. We just have to be faithful, strong, stay in our place, to reflect on the image of Jesus. In Iraq, they always say that Christian people don’t lie, are good people and this is something important: when reflecting on the image of Jesus, we are a faithful group, peaceful group, faithful group. Maybe some of us change due to circumstances but it’s important to keep our faith and be steadfast in our land.
And it’s especially important to give hope to young people.
Yes of course, because young people are the foundation of the Church, of the country, of the family. Unfortunately we have a lot of families who emigrate because one of their young has been killed or kidnapped. The first thing terrorists target are young people because they know they are the foundation. They are organized, they know how to target. It’s not by chance, it’s planned.
Would you like to see other nations imitating the Hungarian government?
Yes, if other governments make steps like the Hungarian government, if each country started to rebuild one of 20-25 Christian villages, in 6 months all will be rebuilt and that will help Iraqi Christians to return.