Faith and hope in the midst of persecution

Fr Robinson (far right) with the Aid to the Church in Need delegation in northern Iraq. Credit: ACN
Fr Robinson (far right) with the Aid to the Church in Need delegation in northern Iraq. Credit: ACN

A visit by aid workers, Church representatives and politicians to camps for displaced families in Erbil, northern Iraq, has been described as both heartening and humbling. Organised by Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, delegates included their National Ecclesiastical Assistant, Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, who is the Superior of the Mount Street Jesuit Community. He joined three Members of Parliament and others to see at first-hand how the Church is responding to the needs of families in the camps and to meet with high-ranking prelates and government officials.

The trip included a visit to Ashty 2 Camp, Ankawa, Erbil, home to 5,500 people in 1,088 housing units, where one MP said he was impressed by the faith of the refugees he met. “It was their faith that was sustaining them,” said Jim Shannon who is the MP for Strangford and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief. “So it was an important visit to make and one that I’ll never forget.”

Many families have left the country and the number of Christian families in the camps has fallen from 120,000 to 100,000, the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, told the visitors. The Chaldean Church is overseeing the Church’s aid efforts and Archbishop Warda said their top priorities were renting houses for the displaced, providing them with food, setting up more medical centres, and giving families pastoral and spiritual support.

A bridge between different groups

Last year, Aid to the Church in Need contributed €10 million for a range of projects in Iraq – aid for which Archbishop Warda thanked the charity, while lamenting the lack of aid from the Iraqi government in Baghdad. “We rely on you telling the story of the situation and the importance of Christians remaining, so that the Christians can help be a bridge between the different groups.”

Among the signs of hope that the party of MPs and the other delegates witnessed was ordinations in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Ankawa, including that of 25-year-old Fr Martin Banni, who trained at St Peter’s Seminary, Erbil.  Many members of Father Banni’s family have left Iraq for the US or Sweden, but he decided to remain in Iraq to minister to those still there. “This ordination is a sign of hope,” said the Head of the Chaldean Church, Patriarch Raphael Sako. “We hope that the refugees will be able to go home soon. Father Martin should be a model of Christ – of courage and sacrifice.”The Ordination at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Ankawa. Credit: ACN

During their visit to northern Iraq, delegates also met with Falah Mustafa Bakir, Head of the Kurdish Regional Government’s Department of Foreign Relations. But it was meeting the people directly affected by the conflict in the region that made the greatest impression on Jim Shannon MP and his fellow MPs, Mark Menzies and Chris Green. “I was … impressed by the resilience of the Iraqis themselves to come through things that we can’t imagine, in ways that have changed their lives – probably forever in many cases,” Mr Shannon said. “It was illuminating, it was heartening, it was humbling … For me, it was an opportunity to see in some places a very thriving Church, and in other places a very persecuted Church, to meet some of those who had to flee with only the shirt on their backs as Daesh (ISIS) descended upon them to do their worst.”

In ten days’ time, Fr Dominic will set off to walk the Camino Ignaciano with parishioners of Farm Street Church to help raise funds for ACN projects in northern Iraq and Jesuit Refugee Service. Last month, he joined a delegation of 22 faith leaders on a visit to ‘The Jungle’, the temporary refugee city in Calais; he was also one of the signatories to the letter to the Prime Minister a few days ago, in which faith leaders urged Mrs May to relax the UK’s immigration rules so that refugees from Syria and other areas could be reunited with their families.

The main photo shows the delegation at the aid distribution centre in Erbil: Neville Kyrke-Smith (National Director, ACN (UK)); Canon Pat Browne, Catholic Duty Chaplain to Parliament; Jim Shannon MP; Archbishop Bashar Warda; Mark Menzies MP; Chris Green MP; Fr Dominic Robinson SJ (National Ecclesiastical Assistant, ACN (UK)); Dr Caroline Hull (NW Manager, ACN(UK)) © Aid to the Church in Need