A Lesson in Humility and Interfaith Understanding


We wrapped up our odyssey in Kurdistan today with a visit to the Al Khalil Monastery in Sulaymani.   It provided us with yet another example of compassion and ecumenical solidarity but also with stories of pain and suffering.   We had met the first time with Sister Fredericka from Germany.  This time, we sat down with Father Jacques Mourad, who founded this ministry in Syria with the Italian Jesuit priest, Father Paolo, in 1991.  Three years ago, Father Paolo left to negotiate with the terrorist group, al-Nusra.  They turned him over to ISIS, and that's the last anyone has heard of him.

The original Mar Musa monastery opened its doors to Christians, Muslims, and any other religious group in Qaryatayn from the outset.  Muslims had a special prayer room there.  All religions would come for week-long seminars.   Many found they could speak freely there for the first time in their lives.  Young Muslim  boys and girls came.   Daily morning and evening prayer, along with an hour of silence, kept the atmosphere contemplative. 

Father Jacques found that the hearts of the young Christians were not always open to Muslims.  For them, many were helped because the political environment had previously discouraged interfaith relations.  It's not that Christians were a sizable segment of the population of the first monastery, Mar Musa.  About 90 km north of Damascus, the town of Qaryatayn had about 50,000 people of whom only 500 were Christian.   A second monastery, iMar Ilyan opened.  There, where Christians numbered only 100 of a 30,000 population.   Mar Ilyan is en route to the famous Palmyra, with its antiquities.  In 2013, they were able to mediate between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian government.  In 2015, however, ISIS came and destroyed most of  the monastery.  They had recently added on to their building.  Russian and government bombing destroyed the new part this year.

ISIS kidnapped Christians in 2015 and took them to their "capital" of Raqqa.  Father Jacques was among them.  Eventually, ISIS decided to let them live because they knew Father Jacques had protected his flock from having to fight against ISIS with the government.   That did not make them safe, however.  Eventually, they escaped, but some 18 people died in more government bombing.

Mar Musa was OK because the bombing was taking place in the valley.  They stayed because if they left, Muslim groups would take it or the government would bomb.  Father Jacques said the Muslims are in the worst situation because they can't escape the Syrian government.  Four families went to ISIS territory.  The others took refuge near Turkey or in the desert near Jordan.   ISIS, he said, brought food and water to the people stuck in the desert.  However, the Syrian government continues to bomb these women and children just trying to survive.    They can't go home because the bombing continues day and night.  He thinks about these Muslims all the time because of his close relationship to them.  They had begun to rebuild the houses destroyed by the government, but the bombing has made things worse. 

ISIS was better than the Syrian government, explained Father Jacques, because the Syrian government "just tortures people."  Both Christians and Muslims have died under government torture.   Father Jacques told us that Muslims are in the worst position because they can't escape the Syrian government.  Refugee camps won't accept them. 

He told us the patriarchs in Iraq and Syria don't help.  When asked, these church officials so distant from the reality on the ground, say "Asad is their savior and Putin their new Christ."  Pope Francis, with whose deputy Father Jacques met, can't convince these bishops and patriarchs to change their positions because they are afraid, lack courage, and are vulnerable to pressure.    The media always quote them, however, so people abroad believe them.  He wonders how they sleep at night when Christians and others are being treated unjustly.  He wants us to know that the Syrian government is a much bigger problem than ISIS.  Everyone in Syria will soon be a refugee due to Asad, he said.

The Assyrian Christians, he said, suffered because they fought ISIS.   Every religion has its fanatics, and it's important to dialogue with them because they're human beings too.  Some Saudis came to him in Raqqa to convert him.  They had their own oil wells whose oil was sold to the United States.  They bought arms with the profits and gave them to ISIS.  In this way, the U.S. is helping ISIS.  Pope Francis, he told us, believes the big problem in the world today is the combination of oil and arms sales.

 It's important to work with moderate Muslims, he said.  When the Chaldean patriarchs invited his community to come to Kurdistan in 2011, it was because they feared the Christians here were too divided from Muslims.  To help bring them together, his group first needed to learn about the Christian community.  They invited Christians from all over Iraq.  As they had done in Syria, they gave these young people a chance to speak out.  Their own priests were a bit uncomfortable about this.  In Kurdistan the monastery has established relations with the Islamic Institute to prevent radicalization as they educate new religious leaders.   A sewing class was set up so Muslims would know the refugees in the monastery are just normal people.  A theatre group was formed in which mainly Muslims are participating now.  Forty people attended their recently-concluded Theatre of the Oppressed workshop.  Women's issues and war/violence have been the main themes.  The drama group is helping the refugees integrate with local people.

When the refugees from Qaraqosh arrived, they had to live in tents.  The Kurdish government and foreign countries helped them.  Now, they live in two-room "caravans."  A big problem for these refugees is that many were professionals in Syria.  They don't want to take just any job.  A veterinarian, for example, won't seek any other job.  Lack of Kurdish language skills is a barrier for Syrians seeking work.   Over 100 women and children have learned Kurdish, which helps them to integrate.

A Syrian refugee woman living in the compound, Juliette,  told me her husband, who was only 50, had been killed.  She came to Kurdistan with her five sons and two daughters, all married.  Pointing to the end of the compound where the monastery had built the two-room houses, she said just the living room of their family home had extended that far.  It was very hard to be living as a refugee, she said. 

Reflecting on all that we have heard, I have realized that what the IDPs and refugees have been teaching us during these two weeks is my own mother's story: father killed in the Armenian genocide, home lost, months in a refugee camp in Greece, eventual refuge in the United States.  It's all too easy for us Americans to label people, placing them in categories and dehumanizing them.  Father Jacques wants us to understand that love, compassion, dialogue and prayer are the key responses to such tragedy.  After all, it's exactly what Jesus would do.