Amid the blazing fires of destruction and chaos currently scourging the Land of the Two Rivers, there are tiny oases that are extinguishing the flames of human cruelty and viciousness. From these oases, “rivers of living water flow” (Jn 7:38) and irrigate the parched lands, which are then transformed into patches of “green pastures” (Ps 23:2) where the “weary and burdened… find rest” (Mt 11:28).
The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Iraq are an amazing group of women. After ISIS had taken over the city of Mosul, the Sisters refused to flee, insisting that their commitment to serve outweighs the dangers of a city where people are shot execution-style, women raped and sold into sex slavery, and non-conforming Muslims are mutilated or crucified. Finally, in August, after ISIS took over the churches, burning some and tearing down others, the Sisters were forced to leave to Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in Kurdistan. Three days later, ISIS seized the town when the Kurdish Peshmarga soldiers surrendered it to the terrorist group and fled for their lives, leaving the civilians to their doom. The Sisters then moved to Erbil, where they are currently carrying out their apostolate.
To this day, Herod is searching for the “Child to destroy him” (Mt 2:13). Considering the strength of the forces that are determined to eradicate Christianity in Iraq, it is unfathomable how the Faith has been able to remain in that region to this day. This new wave of persecution began in June of 2003, two months after the American forces invaded the country, when letters were sent out to Christians threatening them with murder if they did not pay jizya, convert to Islam, or leave the country. The Iraqi government has done absolutely nothing to aid these refugees (other than the rat-infested truckload of expired food; none of the English news sources have picked up on the incident). Meanwhile, the international community has busied itself with its ideological differences, each side concerned more about justifying its partisanship than making any real contribution to end the ordeal, while giving the outward appearance of engaging the situation with ineffectual air raids. To this attitude of indifference, Sr. Maria Hanna, O.P., the brave prioress who was named “Catholic of the Year” by Our Sunday Visitor, says:
We are surprised that some countries of the world are silent about what is happening. We hoped that there would be stronger international approach toward Iraq, and Christians in Iraq in general.
Sr. Maria recalled the tragic events of 1916 when the world powers at that time were converging on the area to decide its fate. After the genocide of 1915, in which approximately two thirds of the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac Christians were massacred by the Muslim Turks, Kurds and Iranians, the region was then mapped and divided into separate countries wherein the surviving Christians were left at the mercy of Muslim majorities. For Sr. Maria, history is repeating itself again: “Why are the events of dividing the Middle East, that happened in 1916, being repeated now?” She feels that the whole thing seems like a “political issue” for which “innocent people” pay with their lives.
Among the many services the Sisters are offering the refugees, education has been a main focus of their apostolate. In Mosul, the community had Sisters who were teaching at the University of Mosul; some Sisters were preparing children for First Communion in Sunday schools, while others were teaching at the local elementary and high schools. Since their arrival in Erbil, the situation has become unbearable, having to live in tents and caravans through the cold winter. In an email correspondence, Sr. Luma Khudher, O.P., who completed her doctorate at the University of Notre Dame in 2012, says that right now they “rented a house to open a kindergarten for the refugee children in Ankawa.” Other ministries the Sisters are currently involved with in Erbil include “working in the refugee camp’s clinic.”
The work of these Sisters is nothing short of the miraculous, drawing upon the hope that the Holy Spirit infuses into those who pledge their lives to be instruments of Christ on earth. When facing an evil of this magnitude, one can easily give up, surrendering to despair and hopelessness. Nonetheless, these Sisters are determined not to give up on the love of Christ, whose suffering body is scourged and in need of soothing care.
As the Holy Family fled Bethlehem to Egypt, likewise the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena have fled Mosul to Erbil. Nothing is mentioned in the Gospels about the Holy Family’s stay in Egypt; this flight is known only by a Christian tradition. Nonetheless, accepting this flight of Jesus, there can be no doubt that where Jesus was, there was also hope, consolation, and joy. In like manner, the Sisters in Iraq bring along with them the hope of Christ and His consolation and healing to the battered Christians of Iraq. When asked how the Church outside of Iraq can help, Sr. Luma said, “Pray for us please. We are hoping to open a school for refugee students.” In addition to prayers, financial help would be greatly appreciated.
Editor’s note: While the Dominican Sisters in Iraq do not have a means by which Westerners can give them financial aid directly, our readers may be interested to learn of the fundraising efforts of our American-based Chaldean Catholic brothers and sisters, who can properly steer gifts to the Catholic Christians in Iraq. The organization is entitled Help Iraq.