Brothers and sisters: Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit. Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ. ~2 Phil 1:20c-24, 27a
The past two days have been very special to me as I anticipate the completion of the pilgrimage to Santiago to venerate the tomb of the apostle Saint James in order to honor him, because he gave his life for Christ rather than deny the faith. My prayers have focused on the Iraqi Christians and other Christians in the Middle East who are faced with a decision to surrender everything rather than deny the faith.
The road into Portomarin three days ago was very precarious with so many rocks on the path of descent. My feet suffered greatly and I have blisters on the pads of my feet under my toes. Two days ago it so slowed me down so that I began to notice the beauty of the walk. I took a picture of a little mushroom embedded in a tree trunk. A newborn calf, all sorts of flowers… My slow camino these past two days has also made me think about entering Santiago. When I think about it I get very teary-eyed. This is such a privilege to have walked a month in the footsteps of so many faithful Catholics who have made this pilgrimage for over 1000 years.
In the last week and a half there has been more coverage on mainline American TV about the plight of Iraqi Christians and persecution of religious minorities in Iraq. About one and a half years ago, the German TV Deutsche Welle produced a program (in English) concerning the persecution of Iraqi Christians. Although the Iraqis have been under intense persecution for many years now this points out that in no way does it diminish their sense of mission to advance the cause of the Gospel through education that can be the hope of reconciliation. The church is very resilient.
Please watch this short documentary from Deutsche Welle (in English), shot last year in Northern Iraq.
You will see Christians who have not lost a sense of hope, who are trying to survive, and who are persisting in trying to make the world around them better, too. (Note, horrific images from about minute 9:00-9:45, but only there).
Also highly recommended, an interview here with Archbishop Warda, who serves the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil in northern Iraq.
“What are three things you would like American Catholics to know about Catholics in Iraq?
First, that Christianity has had a presence in Iraq for 2,000 years. It’s a very old community. It has not been converted from Islam. We were there before Islam. Our schools were always the best, even from the sixth and seventh centuries. Second, we’ve been through a very difficult time. We are grateful to the many people who have held out a hand of charity and solidarity with us, the various Catholic charities. However, we would like to leave this path of charity for the path of opportunity. Yes, we are a minority, but we have the capability to stay and build a good future for Iraq. Third, I would like to see more of a commitment by the media to raise the awareness of the issues in Iraq to build schools and hospitals. We are not benefitting from the wealth that Iraq has. We need to find ways to stay and build the community. When we leave Iraq, it’s a big loss. When I visited our communities in Detroit, the second and third generations are no longer speaking the language. Our whole culture is gone.”
Most Reverend James D. Conley, bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, writes for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, about what an ancient feast this is, and about Mary’s “loyal and ancient followers” in Iraq and Syria.
St. John Damascene, a Syriac deacon from Damascus and Doctor of the Church who preached at the beginning of the 8th century, wrote a sermon to the Blessed Mother, saying to her, “You, O Mother, were transferred to your heavenly home, O Lady, Queen and Mother of God in truth.”
From the beginning of Christian history, the Christians of the Middle East have been loyal sons and daughters of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today, the heirs of that great tradition, the Christians of Iraq and Syria in particular, are facing unprecedented persecution… “
Read the rest of Bishop Conley’s piece at First Things.