I would like to share with you this account of Father Emanuel Martelli, IVE who visited our missions in Baghdad and Erbil, Iraq last week. In that time there, he had the opportunity to visit some of the Christian refugee camps.
P. Diego Cano, IVE.
“This is the time to give our testimony and not of our martyrdom” (Um Mariam de Qaraqosh)
These are the words of Um Mariam, one of the Christian refugees who has survived from Daesh, which she said to her husband the day in which they were able to escape from Qaraqosh leaving everything behind and which she repeated anew in my presence. I begin with these words, which have delved profoundly into me, at hearing them said today from her own lips.
refugee children singing their catechism
It is always difficult to express in words the most profound impressions in one’s soul, all the more when these impressions are produced by the living testimony of faith. Words, gestures and even sighs aren’t adequate enough vehicles for transmitting what resides in the intimacy of one’s soul.
And this is how I am after meeting with the Christian refugees during my visit to Erbil; and thus I have remained, before the eloquent testimony of these simple people. Despite this simplicity they have such determination, so as to be ready to lose their homes, their land, their vehicles and even some to the point of losing their life, rather than lose their faith. Thus I have remained, speechless, at seeing them smile, at hearing 450 Syrian Catholic children sing their catechism in the Church-shed of the camp as if it were a triumphal song of the most valuable thing they possess: their faith. Thus have I remained, and it is no wonder. It is like one who is petrified at hearing the horror of their stories, of their suffering, of having lost everything, risking their lives in the desert, without anything, having a tent as a home. And yet, to hear from their lips this phrase (among the hundreds of other phrases) in virtue of who is saying it, and the circumstances in which they are said, would merit being sculpted in hard marble as a perpetual memorial for future generations: “I give thanks to ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) because without knowing it they have helped me grow closer to God”. I am speechless and this is no exaggeration.
Today I visited one of the many Christian refugee camps in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan together with Father Luis Montes, who is one of our missionaries here. What do you want me to tell you? The strength of these people is impressive! The testimony of hundreds of families that at seeing us enter the camps, smile and greet us with the classic “Ahlan, Abbuna!” (Arabic: Our Priests, Welcome!) It’s impressive seeing the crosses placed in the threshold of their homes, and even where there wasn’t one, there was at least a cross hand drawn on their front doors, as the great trophy that they had kept and as a font that nourishes them, and gives meaning to their entire existence! These are the Christian Iraqis that have chosen to be refugees because they have chosen to not renounce Christ!
Example of the crosses over the cabins in the camp of the Annunciation.
The camp that we had visited is the biggest of the many camps that are found here. It includes around 1,200 families who reside here, meaning to say over 5,000 people, all of whom are Christians who have fled the city of Qaraqosh, where Islamic terrorism has stripped them of everything they had except the most precious thing: their faith and Christian dignity. When you hear the testimony of a mother that tells you so naturally: “When we had to flee, the first thing that my husband did was to look for the Bible, then we took a few clothes, my jewelry, and we left with our two daughters without a cent” One can’t help but remain silent before a confession of faith like this: “the first thing that he did was to look for the Bible” while there were violent islamists at their door!
A drawing of one of the little girls I met during my visit to the cabin of one of the refugee families. You can see the Virgin Mary and the refugees of Qaraqosh. The inscription on each side reads in Arabic: Oh Virgin Mary, pray for us!
Panoramic view of the Christian refugee camp of the Annunciation made possible by donations from various churches.
It is such a strong testimony of faith that there are no words to express it! But also, it is such a strong testimony of the charity and of the Church to which we belong! I say this because it is not only a testimony of the faith of these people but also of the charity and solicitude that I have seen in the bishops, priests, and the many faithful who have built hundreds of homes, who give bread, medicine, assistance, schools, hospitals, and even soccer fields, so that these people can live like men and not like animals. This is a strong testimony and one rejoices at seeing how the Holy Church, so attacked, so reviled in the West even by its own children, is the pioneer in alleviating the suffering of men, not only of Christians, but even of the muslims and Yazidis. This is the Church of Christ and these are her children! I am speechless.
View of the Christian refugee camp.
One of the refugees told me something that I want to share with you: “I was rich. There is a saying in Arabic which says that the rich our fools. That is how I was, a Christian on my passport, but I had no concern for my neighbor. But when I lost everything, I went to a church, and they were the first to give a tent to me and my daughters, and later this cabin. I said to myself, they don´t know me, they don´t know who I am, and they are helping me. It was the first thing that struck me in this journey that has brought me closer to God”. It is this which strikes a person who is able and experiences firsthand that Christian love which is neither an ideology, nor a demagogy, nor cheap politics, but a faithful expression of that love which is shown with works and not with words. The same title that is lovingly given to the priests here is said to all: Abbuna! Our father! And they really feel that he is such! The “abbunas” are there for all of them!
Dear family and friends, please excuse the brevity of this chronicle, but the emotion that I experienced at recalling the gestures of these people paralyzes me. It is the testimony of our Church in the faith of persecuted Christians, which strikes me. It is these simple people who have taught me more than any books. It is the testimony of the charity of the priests and missionaries who risk even their own lives, like the missionaries of our religious family, who work with the camps, providing for all that is needed, spiritually and materially. It is the testimony of the faithful Christians who continue to give of their money, time, and talents, etc. in order to alleviate these people…it is all this, it is something to marvel at, and it takes my breath away and at the same time pushes me to keep going. Forgive me. Pray for the persecuted Christians, pray for Iraq, pray for us who have the unmerited grace to be witnesses of all of this, and above all, we have the grace to be missionaries of the Holy Catholic Church in this land soaked with the blood of its own sons and daughters whose “love for life did not deter them from death” (Rev 12:11) and for this reason they now enjoy the company of the Lamb (Cfr. Rev 7:17).
May God bless you!
Father Emanuel Martelli, IVE
A soccer field which was built with the donations of the Catholic lebanese faithful for the youth and children of the camp.
Young french volunteers from a Catholic organization work in the East in a workshop for refugee children.
Father Luis Montes, Argentinian missionary of the Institute of the Incarnate Word who has been in Iraq for six years, at the entrance of one of the camps most in need in Erbil.