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Cardinal Dolan to Displaced Persons in Iraqi Kurdistan: ‘We Can Never Forget You’ - Catholic New York

A delegation of U.S. Catholic leaders visiting northern Iraq was challenged to go home and work for peace in the troubled region.

“You have come to listen to your brothers and sisters in Iraq who are suffering. The situation is very hard. We cry out with one voice, ‘Don’t forget us,’” Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad said during a Mass in the small village of Inishke, near Dahuk.

The Chaldean Catholic liturgy included members of the local Christian community, as well as Christians who were displaced by the Islamic State group from elsewhere in Iraq. Representatives of the Yezidi and Muslim communities also greeted the delegation, which was headed by Cardinal Dolan, chairman of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, based in Manhattan.

The cardinal was accompanied by Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, who is also on the CNEWA board, and others including Msgr. John Kozar, president of CNEWA, and Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of archdiocesan Catholic Charities.

The group spent April 9-11 in Kurdistan, the autonomous region of northern Iraq. When Islamic State swept through Mosul and Qaraqosh in 2014, more than 125,000 Christians, along with other victims, fled to safety in Kurdistan, where CNEWA has helped local churches construct housing, clinics and schools.

In his homily at the Mass, Cardinal Dolan told those packed into the small church: “You are now suffering away from your homes and families. You are on the cross with Jesus. But we can never forget that Easter always conquers Good Friday.”

Speaking through a translator who used the Aramaic language, Cardinal Dolan said: “Jesus is alive in the love and charity that his people have for one another. That is why in our time here in Kurdistan we have seen Jesus alive in hospitals and clinics and refugee camps and schools and parishes like this. And it is our privilege to be able to be part of this love and charity that you have for one another here.”

“We have come to tell you we love you very much,” Cardinal Dolan said. “We know of your suffering. And we can never forget you.

Bishop Warduni said peace trumps humanitarian aid any day. “We don’t want anything…We only want our rights to go back to our homes and villages,” he said.

Addressing Cardinal Dolan, the bishop said: “We need a good Samaritan, but a new one, and this is you, along with the other leaders who came with you. We thank you and your people, for they have done so much for us with their prayers and with their money.

“But we ask you to ask your government to establish peace in our country. Tell your president, please, that our children and our youth want to grow in freedom. Your Eminence, take with you our good wishes to your faithful, and don’t forget us.”

In an April 11 Mass in a camp for the displaced in Ankawa, on the outskirts of Erbil, the delegation got the same message it heard the previous day.

“We feel very grateful for this fraternal solidarity that you are showing. And we all do hope that you will intervene with your government, with those who have a word to say on the international scene, to be faithful to the principles on which your country was founded. That includes the right of all people, every human being, to live in freedom and dignity,” Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan said in his homily.

“When we see that strong nations like yours uphold the rights of those who have been uprooted, at that time we will really live the hope of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.”

In an interview at the end of the visit, Cardinal Dolan told Catholic News Service that the pastoral visit would provoke renewed advocacy back home.

“We value the relationship we have with our government, but we sometimes smile when outsiders think we have a lot more clout than we really have. But that’s not going to stop us from trying,” the cardinal said. “When we get back, Bishop Murphy and I will brief our fellow bishops and the Holy See, and we will share with our political leaders what we have seen and heard.

“We owe it to the people here because they have asked us to do that,” the cardinal said.

As they visited with the displaced and the pastoral workers who accompany them, some of what the U.S. Church leaders saw and heard was not easy to experience. In an April 9 public forum in a displaced camp in Ankawa, Amal Mare was one of several displaced persons who offered testimony. She praised local Christians for welcoming her family when they fled from Qaraqosh.

“Yet when are we going to be able to leave? We are living here in misery, and we want to go back to Qaraqosh,” she said, sobbing as Cardinal Dolan embraced her.

“We miss our churches. We are sons and daughters of the Church. Here we created a church in this hall, and every night for the last 18 months, we have all prayed the rosary here. But now we’re losing hope. How much longer will we have to wait?”

Meeting April 9 with a group of students at the Chaldean Catholic St. Peter’s Seminary in Erbil, Cardinal Dolan told the seminarians that they had good models of ministry from which to learn.

“Pope Francis keeps saying that we priests must be with our people. We just came from a refugee camp where we met a priest who slept outside on his mattress because he said he couldn’t sleep inside if his people were outside. We’ve met with sisters and priests who walked with the people from Mosul as they were fleeing. That’s the model of the priesthood. That’s Jesus. To be with our people all the time, to be especially close to your people in the difficult times,” the cardinal said.

The head of the Chaldean Catholic community in Kurdistan, which has provided services to the displaced, praised the Church leaders’ visit.

“It has been a visit of solidarity, a visit of love, a visit of hope, where we can really feel that we are not forgotten, that we’ve been in the prayers of His Eminence and the bishops and the whole Christian community in America. It means a lot for us,” Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil told Catholic News Service.

Msgr. Sullivan, speaking with CNY by phone on Monday, said the camps consist of what the refugees refer to as “caravans,” though they might more commonly be considered “trailer homes.”

“I would almost call it a village,” he said, indicating that entrepreneurial businesses have begun sprouting up despite the close quarters.

The people who live there, though they have suffered after being uprooted from their homes and being forced to quickly relocate under threat, often at a few hours’ notice, reflect “an incredible depth of the human spirit,” Msgr. Sullivan said.

“They live their lives each day, supporting one another, praying, being educated,” he added.

The work of CNEWA, a papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support, is administered by a corps of clergy, religious sisters and laypeople, many of whom are displaced themselves, Msgr. Sullivan explained. “Those doing the helping and those being helped form the community of persons that long to go back home,” he said.

The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, who operate a school of more than 400 students in Erbil, have been displaced twice, first leaving Mosul in 2010 and then Qaraqosh less than two years ago.

“The spirit and presence of the sisters gives so much life…to the students there. The lay teachers have that same spirit,” Msgr. Sullivan said.

CNEWA has done “a marvelous job” of providing coordination among the Catholic organizations and with other Christian organizations, Msgr. Sullivan said. What he witnessed in Kurdistan reinforces “the fact that whenever we provide help to people, they are not just statistics. They are individuals to be treated with compassion but also professionally with quality services.

“At Catholic Charities, that’s exactly what we aspire to,” Msgr. Sullivan said.

The monsignor also noted how Cardinal Dolan’s “warm, affable presence translates very well across cultures,” and evoked a similar response from those to whom he was ministering.

“He brought the love of Jesus to them,” Msgr. Sullivan said.

Affirming that point in an interview with CNY the next day, Msgr. Kozar said the visit of Cardinal Dolan and the other Church leaders from New York “surpassed all of my expectations and hopes.”

The cardinal’s presence, in his meetings with religious leaders, CNEWA staff members and displaced persons, “reassured them that they are not forgotten, and they are loved,” said Msgr. Kozar, who was making his second visit to Kurdistan in two years.

“They love the Church,” Msgr. Kozar said of the displaced persons whose sole desire is to return home. “The Church is the only sign that reassures them in their hope…The Church is there at every turn with them.”—CNS

Catholic New York staff contributed to this report.

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