Threats to an ancient church
When 22-year-old Hans Shamoaay was growing up in a Christian neighborhood in Baghdad, children spent hours outdoors, playing football, shooting marbles or racing remote control cars.
Today, fears of kidnappings, killings and explosions dominate everyday life for Christians in Baghdad and many other places in Iraq. Many families are fleeing or spending their days indoors. Violence is commonplace.
“When we hear that people have been killed, it is very normal,” says Shamoaay, whose congregation, Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, was the site of an Oct. 31, 2010, bombing that killed 58 people.
In the midst of threats, Iraq’s ancient Christian church, which MCC supports with workers and funding for education and peace projects, plays a critical role in ministering to fellow Christians and in serving all people affected by the unrest.
“The Middle East is the birthplace of the Christian faith, and the church has been present in the region for more than 2,000 years,” says Daryl Byler of Washington, D.C., MCC representative for Iraq, Iran, Jordan and Palestine and Israel.
“Although the number of Christians in Iraq has declined dramatically in recent years, the church continues to offer a faithful witness to the way of Christ,” Byler says. “By helping to train future leaders and supporting efforts to provide services, MCC aims to help the Iraqi church maintain a vibrant long-term presence despite current threats and challenges.”
Since 2003, when security in places such as Baghdad deteriorated in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, 66 churches have been bombed or attacked and more than 400 Christians killed, says Bishop Bashar Warda, Archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Erbil. Four priests and a bishop have been murdered and 17 priests and two bishops kidnapped.
Warda estimates that half a million Iraqi Christians have left the country since 2003, with the Christian population dropping from about 800,000 to 300,000. Two major institutions of the Chaldean church, St. Peter’s Seminary and Babel College for Philosophy and Theology, were forced to leave Baghdad in 2007, moving to Ankawa, a Christian suburb of the northern Iraqi city of Erbil.
But the church’s resolve remains strong.
“We have a mission here — a mission toward this country, a mission toward the culture,” Warda stresses. “We have been here since the beginning of the second century.”
In Ankawa, the church’s commitment is making a difference in the lives of children such as 5-year-old Amar Cesar.
Amar and his family — who are part of the Yazidi, a minority religious group being persecuted for its faith — moved from the city of Mosul to Ankawa three years ago.
Fears for safety in Mosul meant that Amar and his mother, Leena Kamal, could not go beyond their home. Amar’s parents believe it was because of this isolation that Amar had not begun speaking when they moved to Ankawa.
But Amar has thrived since enrolling in Kids House, a kindergarten supported by MCC’s Global Family education sponsorship program and run by the Chaldean church’s Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
His language skills flourished, he’s made friends and gained self-confidence. He’s learning songs in the Aramaic language, and teachers have noticed he’s particularly gifted in music.
“Amar is a smart boy; we want the best for him. He is our only child and we want him to develop in every way,” says Kamal. “We are very grateful that we found Kids House. If he didn’t have Kids House, we don’t know what would have happened to him.”
The kindergarten, which is open to 3- to 5-year-olds and draws students from all ethnicities and groups, is bursting at the seams. It moved to larger premises in 2007 and has since added three large tents on the lawn to serve as additional classrooms.
MCC’s Global Family funding makes it possible for the Sisters to accept students who cannot afford to pay tuition fees. MCC also has supported the school through the work of Joanna Hoover, of Greencastle, Pa., a participant in the Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program. From August 2010 through July 2011, Hoover taught English to teachers and supported teachers and students in classes.
“The strength of the people I’ve met here never ceases to amaze me,” says Hoover. “Nearly everyone has lost someone to violence and has fled from that violence. Their perseverance and faith is truly inspiring to me.”
A few blocks away at St. Peter’s Seminary and Babel College, where MCC has supported English teachers since 2007, Shamoaay and other seminary students, most in their 20s, are adamant that Iraq’s tragedies have strengthened their commitment to show God’s love for all.
Shamoaay, who lost many close friends in the Oct. 31, 2010, attack on his home church, acknowledges the pain and loss will follow him through his life. Yet the church strives to respond in love.
“We have celebrated many Masses, not only for the people who have been killed but for the terrorists that killed them,” he says. “What happened is difficult for Iraqi Christians to forget, but we have forgiven them.”
The English-language skills that MCC workers teach, say Shamoaay and other students, are desperately needed so that Iraqi Christians can share their stories of hope and perseverance. The dangers are real, they stress, but so is their commitment.
“As a priest, you have to be prepared to die,” says 20-year-old Bhnam Saa Alhaser, a seminary student from the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul, a once-vibrant congregation where a priest was killed in 2007 and a bishop in 2008. Now, his parents are among the 15 to 20 people still attending the church.
“Sometimes it is dangerous,” says Nashwan Younan Yousif, 23. “But if priests left the country, it would be like a shepherd leaving the sheep. Our message is to be a good example of Jesus’ life.”
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