One can not say that Father Enrique didn’t know what he was getting into when he arrived in Baghdad in November. “My brother has been living here for five years,” says the Argentine, who, like his brother Luis, belongs to the Institute of the Incarnate Word, an Argentinean religious order. He also knows the Middle East well, having lived for twelve years in Egypt, Jordan and the Holy Land. “It is the charism of our Order, to go boldly where no one else wants to go. Even when we were seminarians, we are encouraged to go to difficult or remote places.”
“Every day, I celebrate the Holy Mass for our fellow Christians. They remain faithful to their baptismal vows and come despite the adversities.”
Indeed, the Order has members in unusual places all over the world: in Siberia, for example, but also in the Middle East. They serve the Catholics of Gaza and those of Aleppo. Father Enrique’s whole family has internalized this spirit. “Two of my brothers are priests in the Institute. Luis is here, another lives in Ukraine. A third brother is a lay volunteer with our community service in Egypt. And, after my father passed away, my mother has also entered the Order. She then volunteered to go to Syria, but our superiors didn’t let her. At that point, she was almost 80 years old. Now she prays for her children in one of our monasteries in Argentina,” says Father Enrique with a grin. He does not see himself as a hero, but as a priest with faith in God.
“At the beginning of the year, I was in Egypt. I read in the newspaper that some Iraqi priests have left the country for fear of the IS. So I volunteered to go. The faithful here shouldn’t have to go without priestly assistance,” says the religious, who has been a priest almost twenty years. “It’s not like I don’t have any fear at all. But the faith tells me that God is with us no matter where we go. So I asked my superiors to be allowed to go to Iraq. Since my brother had asked for help in pastoral work, they sent me here.”
By “here,” he means the cauldron of Baghdad, the city oppressed by the country’s turmoil, in which more than 120 bombs went off in October alone. Politicians and Western diplomats live in the Green Zone, a high-security area behind high walls, to protect themselves from attacks. Jihadists of the Islamic State detonate car bombs or shoot each other, over and over again, in the streets and bazaars of the city in the broad daylight. Thus have they brought thousands of people with them to their death.
Especially the Christians of the city live in fear. Since the bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shiites that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Christians have been fair game for the hatred of the jihadists. A recent awful climax was the attack on the Syrian Catholic Church, Our Lady of Salvation, in October 2010. Over 40 Christians were mowed down by the guns of the jihadists, or killed by explosions. The shockwaves of the act shook Christians throughout the Middle East. Constant kidnappings, extortions, and killings resulted in tens of thousands of Christians fleeing the city, going either to the safer Kurdish areas in the north or leaving the country altogether. Often today, only a few Christian families remain in neighborhoods where tens of thousands of Christians once lived. And since the IS overran the north of the country with its ancient Christian settlements in the summer of last year, even more families are moving away. They want to sell their homes while there is still time. Confidence in a future in Iraq is gone. In many places, two thousand years of Christian history is coming to an end.
“I know it’s dangerous. Bombs go off here every day. When I went shopping recently with my brother, he showed me a hole in the ground. A car bomb had blown up there. And of course something could also happen to us. There are policemen in front of the cathedral. But this is not a protection against those who are determined to go to extremes. But I’m happy and calm. I want to help the Christians of Iraq. That’s why I’m here,” says Father Enrique. He has been serving for a couple weeks at the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad. To his benefit, he speaks good Arabic. His responsibilities include the administration of the sacraments and the usual pastoral care of the faithful. “Every day, I celebrate the Holy Mass for our fellow Christians. They remain faithful to their baptismal vows and come to Church despite the adversities. That impresses me.”
Now, in the Holy Year of mercy—even in Baghdad, the archbishop has opened a Holy Door on December 13—he wants to center his preaching particularly around the forgiveness of God in confession.
His duties at the Cathedral include service for the Christian refugees who fled last year from northern Iraq to Baghdad in the face of IS terrorism. They now live in a refugee camp dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The largest group are Syrian Catholic Christians from the city Karakosch, once the greatest Christian city of Iraq. Most have come to Baghdad to get issued their travel documents. Many, in the panic of escape, forgot or lost their documents. None of them will stay in Iraq. Yet there often long delays before they can leave to Canada, Australia or another country of their choice. “We take care of these people. But it is also encouraging for us to see how strong they are. They have lost everything except their faith,” says Father Enrique of his experiences with the refugees. Because people in the refugee camps are afraid to go on the street and also shy away from the fifteen-minute drive to the Cathedral, although relatively short by Baghdad standards, they have recently opened a small chapel in the refugee camp. With the help of “The Church in Need” they could construct a container as a church. “It is very important that there is a church in the camp, though it seems something simple. This gives people a piece of their lost homeland back.”
“They smile, although they have lost everything. They know, despite their suffering, that God loves them. This is a testimony to the whole world.”
Father Enrique looks forward to his first Christmas in Iraq. “I wouldn’t want to celebrate anywhere else,” he says. “Our Lord Jesus Christ was born on a cold night without anyone except Mary, Joseph and the shepherds knowing. Celebrating Christmas in an Islamic country: It’s as if you were again returned to the crib, which stood quietly in Bethlehem without the world around it taking note. Yet from here came the salvation of the world.” In the predominantly Christian West, Father Enrique, Christmas is often reduced to just a few days off work. “It would be nice if the Christians in the West remember that they have brothers and sisters in the Orient, who must celebrate Christmas in adverse circumstances as refugees. May they remember them in prayer. Christians give them here a fine example of perseverance in the faith. They smile, although they have lost everything. They know, despite their suffering, that God loves them. This is a testimony to the whole world. “
Meanwhile, Father Enrique is preparing himself for a long stay in Iraq. “Generally, wherever I am sent, I want to stay until I die. Of course, I have been in many countries. But that is the intent that I have when I arrive in a new place. I want to serve the people there completely, and not already have one eye on my next transfer. And it’s no different this time. I want to die in Iraq.”
Translated by: Fr. William Duraney, IVE
(Missionary in Germany)
Original text in German: http://www.die-tagespost.de/Ich-will-im-Irak-sterben;art456,165994