What is happening in Iraq
The statistic that there are more Christians persecuted in the world today than in the first three hundred of Christianity (when Christians were under persecution from the Roman Empire) has been publicly pointed out by Pope Francis. According to The International Society for Human Rights, 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world are directed against Christians and The Pew Research Centre says that, in almost three-quarters of the world’s nations, Christians face some form of discrimination.
At this time, this is seen most strikingly and tragically in Iraq and, particularly, in the city of Mosul. In late July, IS (Islamic State) militants, invading from the north, captured Mosul which is Iraq’s largest city in the north. There have been Christians living in Mosul continuously for almost two thousand years but, in late July, the militants gave three options for the thousands of Christians living in the city: (1) renounce their Christianity, convert to Islam and be allowed to remain in the city in peace, (2) remain as Christians and leave the city and become refugees or (3) remain as Christians in the city and face execution at the hands of the militants.
In the meantime, the militants have seized churches and other church buildings as well, removing crosses from some and burning down others. At this point, it is important to note that a number of Muslims in Iraq have expressed solidarity with Christians as well as trying to defend them from the militants. Additionally, because the militants are implementing extreme Islamic law, some of the Muslim residents are also choosing to flee from militant-controlled areas.
It is estimated that 30,000 Christians have fled Mosul and another 200,000 Christians have fled from other northern Iraqi towns as militants take over more and more towns. The journey to find a safe haven has not been easy either as those forced to flee get stopped by militants at checkpoints along the way where all their valuables and money are taken from them. The refugees then are faced with a walk of about 30km to reach the next safest town in the heat of the sun and with barely anything left except the clothes on their back leaving behind their homes and livelihoods and now faced with an uncertain future as refugees. Some women and children, on the way to safety, are kidnapped and sold as slaves.
What we can do as Catholics
Days later, Pope Francis in his public Sunday Angelus address on July 20 said: “I received with concern the news of the Christian communities in Mosul, Iraq … Today they are persecuted; our brothers and sisters are persecuted, they are pushed out, forced to leave their homes without the opportunity to take anything with them. To these families and to these people I would like to express my closeness and my steadfast prayer… And to you, here in the Square and to the many who are watching us on television, I address a call to remember these Christian communities in your prayers.” Pope Francis has asked the whole Church to pray together to the Holy Spirit constantly for the gift of peace on Iraq.
In response to this, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe (the Catholic Archbishop of Perth) has called on Catholics and also anyone who believes in God to pray for (1) a satisfactory solution to this crisis and (2) for a change of heart of those perpetrating the violence and the terror. Archbishop Costelloe has asked for prayer and also for fasting for peace in Iraq. Fasting has always been associated with prayer because it helps us enter more deeply into prayer and it is also a way that we express solidarity with those who are suffering and are deprived in so many ways at present.
In our Catholic tradition, there are many forms of intercessory prayer namely asking for Mary to pray for us in the Rosary, praying before the Blessed Sacrament for a period of time like a Holy Hour, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, praying with Scripture, novenas and many other forms of prayer in which we express our concerns to God. At the end of this article, is a prayer that can be prayed regularly and is adapted from a prayer written by the Catholic Patriarch of Iraq. Fasting does not have to be excessively burdensome but it can consist of minimising or refraining from certain food, drink or form of entertainment for a period of time and even contributing the money and time we could have spent on those things towards materially and spiritually helping those caught in this Iraqi crisis.
The Australian Federal Government has decided to open its humanitarian refugee program to up to 4,000 Iraqi Christians and Yazidis who are also targeted by the militants. Even with limited material and political resources, there is still much we can contribute spiritually towards the situation as Catholics. Prayer and Fasting are significant ways we can help bring peace to Iraq because, by these means, we call upon God who is the Author and Prince of Peace.
The plight of Iraq is deep and the suffering of Christians is severe and frightening.
Peace is the foundation of life.
Grant the people of Iraq peace and stability that will enable them to live with one another with dignity and joy.
Spare their lives and grant them patience and courage to continue their witness of Christian values with trust and hope.
We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
CYM Directors note – in addition to these above comments we also encourage you to consider donating to the organisations assisting in the various areas. Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) assisting the needs of Iraq’s refugee Christians. www.cnewa.org