Camilla Haddad, 98, was hidden and cared for by the family of Elias Abu Ahmed when the Islamic State captured Mosul. Yesterday, she met with the Chaldean patriarch in Baghdad. Brotherhood and friendship between Christians and Muslims are echoed in Pope Francis’s ‘Fratelli Tutti’. A change in attitude is underway in Iraq.
Baghdad (AsiaNews) – Camilla Haddad, 98, has been the protagonist of a story of Islamic-Christian brotherhood and solidarity that has only recently emerged. Thanks to the help of Chaldean Patriarch Card Louis Raphael Sako, she has been able to talk about it to AsiaNews.
She remembers that “When the Islamic State entered Mosul I was alone and couldn't escape. Together with my friend Mary we stayed, in the city. We were afraid but luckily a neighbour, Elias Abu Ahmed, a Muslim, came to our rescue. He told us that he would do everything to protect us.”
Along with her friend Mary Fathohi Weber, who later died of natural causes, Camilla was welcomed and cared for by Elias’s Muslim family during the early stages of the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group in northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.
Almost seven years later, she visited the patriarchal headquarters in Baghdad yesterday evening, accompanied by Elias, who now considers her part of her family. The feeling is reciprocal, based on friendship and mutual help built up over time.
During the meeting, Elias had to interpret and put into words the thoughts of the elderly woman several times. Although in good health for someone of her age, she now struggles to walk and do even the normal things of daily life.
She remembers militiamen breaking into her home in Mosul's Mohandessin neighbourhood, where she lived with her friend Mary.
Like other Muslim neighbours who came to her rescue, Mr Elias came to the house. Faced with IS militia, he claimed that Camilla was his grandmother and Mary was his aunt, and then moved them to his home in the Baladiyat neighbourhood.
Over the years Elias’s family grew. Today he has two wives and 14 children, patiently educated by the elderly Christian woman who considers them her grandchildren for all intents and purposes.
Every day Camilla recites the rosary to thank God for the help she received and for the comfort she has found in this new family.
“Daesh (Islamic State) could have driven us out but Elias Abu Ahmed welcomed us and took us in his house,” Camilla said. “I had some money put aside and gave it to him to help support the family and raise the children, because his salary as a worker, often small, was not enough.”
Mary Fathohi Weber fell ill shortly after the arrival of the Islamic State and it was Camilla who cared for her until her death on 1 January 2015.
For quite a while, Camilla has struggled with the pain caused by an old injury to her leg. Other than that, her health is good despite her age.
She sold her house and with the money she has helped her adopted family, giving a hand with the children, buying food and medicine.
“Camilla feels at home in this family,” Patriarch Sako told AsiaNews. “She knows she is being cared for. I proposed to her to come to Baghdad, to a seniors’ home, but she said she’d rather stay in Mosul, and pray the rosary for all of us.”
“When she crossed the threshold of the house to come to Baghdad, all the children went out to accompany her; they wanted to come with her; they consider her their grandmother. She contributes to their upbringing, because while they are humble people, she grew up in a upscale neighbourhood in Mosul.”
Card Sako remembers her well. He met her when he was pastor at the Church of Perpetual Help in Mosul, in the 1990s.
“With her sisters she came with me to Rome, then Paris, in the Holy Year. I thought she was dead because I never heard from her again, but I never stopped looking for her to find out what had happened to her,” Card Sako said.
“It was not easy to gather information” because, among other things, of the situation of great confusion that reigned for a long time in northern Iraq’s big city, but “in the end we succeeded”.
The Patriarch noted that “Elias often uses the expression ‘Fratelli Tutti’, and says that he followed with Camilla all the stages of Pope Francis' visit to Iraq, in early March.
“For Elias, his visit to Iraq was a beautiful gesture and he considers what he does for Camilla as part of the pontiff's teachings about friendship and brotherhood between Christians and Muslims.”
“This story, like so many others, is an example of a change of mentality in Iraq,” Card Sako explained. “Here’s another. We are restoring a church in Baghdad and when the chief construction engineer went to buy the marble, the Shia Muslim seller asked what it was for. When he was told that it was 'for the cardinal', he replied that he would provide everything that was needed, and gave a discount to thank him for the Pope’s visit to Iraq.”
(Photos from the Chaldean Patriarchate)