Vatican City (AsiaNews) – Still deeply moved and emotional at having been able to meet and speak with Pope Francis for at least three minutes, at the end of the general audience two days ago, Fr. Samir says "it was a great moment. I wanted to meet him to convey the message of the Christians of Kurdistan and of the refugees”.
“I said to the Pope: thank you for all you have done for the refugees and the Christians of Iraq. I showed him pictures of our charitable activities and I begged him to continue to speak about our tragedy. The media often forgets about us, but whenever the Pope speaks out they remember what happened. I said to him: We need your voice because it is a voice heard by politicians and the communities. And Christians, spurred on by his words, can come to our aid. He assured me: Do not worry. I continue to pray for you and I will continue to speak for you, until this terrible Way of the Cross ends'".
Immersed in the refugee emergency
Samir Youssef, 41, a graduate of the Gregorian University, is a Chaldean priest from Mosul, ordained in 1999. In 2009 he was made parish priest in the diocese of Amadiya - Dohuc, which serves five villages. Samir, is one of the stars of the video "Adopt a Christian from Mosul," the campaign launched by AsiaNews to support refugees persecuted by the Islamic state.
The priest and his community are immersed in the refugee emergency: "Before we had thousands of Christian refugees from Syria; then, when Isis conquered Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, thousands and thousands of Christians and Yazidis arrived. At the beginning there were at least 5 thousand families. Now we have 3,600 refugee Christian families in our area. The others have moved to Ankawa. But we must not forget that there are at least half a million Yazidis. My parish of Inshke hosts 350 yazide families; 85 Christian families; dozens of Muslim families. In other villages there are 50-60 Christian families, as well as Yazidis in each.
We found ourselves confronted with an immense task: we hosted this avalanche of refugees in churches, in schools, in homes. Gradually we have restored abandoned buildings to turn them into homes. From day one, the local church gave food, drink, medicine, clothes, fuel ... This, it must be said, thanks to the donations that come to us from the Chaldeans in the world, from AsiaNews, from the Holy Father, the bishops' conferences, Caritas ... "
"Despite everything we're doing for Christians, Muslims and Yazidis, there are still difficulties. For example, the refugee children need to be bused to local schools. Last year 80% of these children have lost a year of school. This year we want to find the funds to allow all of them to be able to pay for the bus ticket that will take them to schools in the big city. Because you see, not all villages have a school.
The majority of the refugees are unemployed. The men especially feel distressed at having nothing to do all day. Even women are suffering from being closed up in tents or in containers all day ... Then there is the lack of privacy of these containers, because they house two or three families together. Even two or three months of living together in these cramped conditions can become a burden, but just imagine living like this for a whole year! Everyone is far from home and trying to scrape together a better life. "
A wounded coexistence between Christians and Muslims
Fr. Samir believes that the experience of persecution of Christians in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain
has strained Islamic-Christian coexistence in Iraq.
"Iraq’s Christians - he explains – have been immersed in war for 30 years [the Iran-Iraq war; the war with Kuwait; the two Gulf Wars; the post-Saddam; Isis - ed]. Yet, the Christian community has always tried to resist and continued to witness to the faith to make our society more Christian and human. The Christians of the Nineveh plain and Mosul, were able to live, work, go to school.
There were at least 2,500 young Christians at the University of Mosul. We lived in fear, but that didn’t stop us from going. But the day Isis delivered its ultimatum (convert to Islam or pay the protection tax, or die), it was a fatal blow. These people had to leave all they had behind and flee without being able to bring anything because Isis robbed them before letting them go. Before there were attacks and bombs, but these targeted Christians and Muslims indistinctly. When the churches were attacked, our Muslim neighbors came to show their solidarity. But this time the attack was targeted. Isis is waging a religious genocide. In cities the Muslim neighbors entered the homes of their Christian neighbors and took everything that was there; day and night the mosques cried out the ultimatum to leave ... It was terrible.
The same thing happened on the Nineveh Plain: in one night Christians fled, fearful they would befall the same fate as the Yazidi: invasion of the homes; women rapped; families kidnapped and killed ... ".
Isis is not all Islam
I ask Fr. Samir if the deep wounds suffered by the Christians will lead to them rejecting coexistence.
"Let me tell you the truth: Isis does not represent all of Islam, all Muslims. Christians and Muslims have lived together in the Middle East for many centuries. There were times when political Islam raged against the Christians, and the Jews. But if we look at history, we see that living together has resisted. Unfortunately, over the past 50 years, there has been a gradual return to political Islam. First Iraq began to expel the Jews and now it’s the turn of the Christians. My mother recalls that when the Jews were fleeing, they told us: Today is Saturday, tomorrow is Sunday. In short: they are eliminating us; then you will begin to eliminate Christians. And then secular Muslims. Now there are no more Christians in Mosul. But every day Isis continues to kill all Muslims who disagree with them. Some doctors who fled the hospital in Mosul, said that in a year of the Islamic State, at least 2 thousand people were killed in the city including teachers, doctors, officials who do not agree with Isis. Isis wants to rule by fear, to establish a caliphate ruled by Sharia. They tell themselves: a gun kills just one person at a time; we kill with suicide bombers to create fear. In Iraq there is a moderate Muslim community that wishes to live together and they constantly tell us: If you leave, Iraq without Christians is not Iraq".
The priest explains that while Christians are a very small percentage of the population (about 3%), from the point of view of their impact on society they seem to be 40%! "3 out of every 5 doctors – he points out – are Christians; 5 out of every 7 teachers are Christian; etc ... Christians have a very important role in society. So today there are many voices against Isis, against extremism, against the persecution of Christians among Muslims. Days ago there was a big demonstration in Baghdad to demand more electricity, but also to criticize the attitude of the politicians, who seem completely unconcerned about the population. There were banners that said: 'We want a secular country; we want to live together, not Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, but Iraqi '. There are even Muslims who ask forgiveness for what Isis has done against us. Unfortunately their inhumanity and their hatred still create a lot of fear".
Christians who emigrate
The point however is to see if among Christians there is still the desire to live together with Muslims. Fr. Samir responds: "I tell you what: most Iraqi Christians have relatives all over the world. If they wanted to, they could leave the country tomorrow and travel to Australia, the US, Germany ... But they say Iraq is our land. All of these refugees are hoping not to emigrate but to return to their land, to their cities from which they were driven out with violence. This is why the Church seeks to help displaced families rebuild their lives. Christian homes in Mosul were destroyed by bombing or used by the IS as weapons caches and hideouts ... We have to help these refugees in Kurdistan live, so they can return to their homes. This is why we need to find them work, housing, a school ... ".
"We have to find small projects to give them work. For families living in containers, the Church can provide the land to build houses for each family. This is better than renting existing homes. The diocese of Erbil spends at least 30 thousand dollars each month to pay all rents for the refugees. Building small houses would immediately create work for the refugees, youth and adults, and would create more substance to their future.
Then there is the problem of transportation of children to school, because the families do not have money to pay the monthly bus ticket, which is about $ 30 a month.
Finally, we are equipping some of the local parishes with a large kitchen, where we can host all refugees at least 4 times a month, to offer them a more substantial meal in a festive atmosphere".
AsiaNews has decided to lend its support the projects suggested by Fr. Samir Youssef. We would kindly invite all of our friends and readers for their help by generously donating to our "Adopt a Christian from Mosul".