Iraqi priest: my vocation, in the drama of war and disease
Fr. Gabriele Firas A Kidher is one of the priests ordained by Pope Francis. Faith fueled by personal suffering and the collapse of a country at war and divided. University in Mosul and confronting Muslim students. Openness and dialogue to build a relationship of coexistence. Mercy, a desire to put into practice in daily life.
Rome (AsiaNews) - A vocation to the priesthood which originates and is fed by the "ilnesses" and the "drama of a nation" battered by decades of war and sectarian divisions; a personal story that is intertwined with the life of his beloved country, where "God willing" he desires to carry out his mission. This is the story of an Iraqi priest, Fr. Gabriele Firas A Kidher, who describes to AsiaNews his choice to consecrate his life to Christ, a "desire that matured over time" to give "my life to the people who suffer". "Human frailty, the wounds of body and soul - he added - should not make us lose hope, because Jesus is with us. This is also the case for the Iraqi people, for the Christians of that land".
Fr. Kidher (pictured, on the day of his ordination to the diaconate) is 39 years old – he was born in Baghdad March 12, 1977 - and is a member of the Rogationists Order. He is one of the deacons which Pope Francis ordained on Sunday, April 17, in St. Peter's basilica.
Born and raised in Iraq, in a deeply Catholic family (his uncle is a priest and two aunts are religious sisters), he has lived through the tragedy of three wars - against Iran, the invasion of Kuwait and the fall of Saddam Hussein - and experienced firsthand sectarian hatred for Christians. After moving to Italy, he was formed by the Rogationist fathers to whom he was drawn after having met a priest from the congregation: "I was impressed by his witness - he says - by his invitation to hold the heart of Christ, compassionate, ardent and merciful”.
The first event that marked his life was when he was a child and the family fled to Qaraqosh, a town on the Nineveh plain, to escape the violence in the capital during the war with Iran in the 1980’s. "A truck hit me - he says - and I was in a coma for 13 days. The doctors said I would die but, at some point, in the dark I saw a man dressed in white, who took me by the hand. After a while I woke up and I immediately thought it was Jesus. I thought that I was unconscious for a few minutes, but actually it was for several days ".
As a child he did not fully understand the nuances of the events, he said, but that was the first step in a process of growth and formation.
Following the accident he had to undergo several operations, but he never lost his nerve and with the same spirit, a few years later, tackled and defeated disease: "At university - Fr. Kidher recalls, where he obtained a degree in Biology and Genetics from Mosul - a serious illness struck me in my bone marrow and I had to remain still, in bed, for seven months. During that time I made a profound analysis of my life. I re-read the Bible step by step, in particular the story of Job. I share in his suffering. I was living a battle with the Lord, which has since matured to imagine myself in St Peter". In turmoil, he found the strength to face a spiritual father, which led him to nurture and mature the ideas to approach the priesthood "while not knowing which religious order".
He moved to Italy in 2004 and had a first experience in Assisi where he "rooted my faith." After nearly two years of discernment, on September 8, 2007 he made his entrance into Rogationists in Messina, Sicily. He then went on to study theology at the Lateran, which he will complete by the end of this summer. He has alternated his study in Italy with periods - even lengthy ones- of mission in Iraq. "They sent me - he says - for one year to Bartella and Qaraqosh, between 2012 and 2013 and in fact it was while I was in Qaraqosh that I should have made my perpetual profession, July 1, 2014, but the arrival of the Islamic State upset these plans".
He had to deal personally with the terrorists: "In 2014 – he recalls – I escaped an assassination attempt in Mosul, at the hands of Islamic extremist groups'. In the second largest city of Iraq he completed his university studies in the early years of this decade, but "in recent times, even before it was taken by IS, it had become another city. It was like being in Afghanistan, and had long been in the hands of fundamentalists".
In describing the relations with Muslims and the Islamic region, Fr. Gabriele Firas A Kidher narrates an anecdote from his college days: "The professor, a Muslim, asked us students for our opinion on genetics based on our religious affiliation. The Muslims were opposed. When I spoke I said that if something is in favor of the human being, if it improves their lives without affecting human values, that's good. As a biologist I can tell you that in the past many cows were killed to discover insulin, but now thanks to research this is not required. However, they did not listen to me".
The basic problem in relations with Islam, he says, consists in this: the lack of openness, "not only at the level of thought but also of religion." The priest continues, this is why we must work "on the generations to come, to understand the value of discussion, study, openness to the other." "I too - he continues - have had relatives killed by fundamentalists in Mosul because they were Christians. They killed my cousin and his father in 2007, at the time of the crisis between Sunnis and Shiites in the city. The Christians were a bridge of peace, of unity, but they looked at us with suspicion because we did not take sides".
Recently Fr. Kidher returned to Iraq and visited refugee camps in Erbil and Kurdistan. "An image struck me - he recalls - and it is that of a mother who was holding her baby while she was surrounded by mud after a rainy night. She was trying to warm him with her body, while she kept on going despite the difficulties. Well, this is a great witness ... I suffer, but I want to protect my child'".
In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Iraqi priest wants to conclude with a little message to those who want to cultivate a vocation and devote their life to Christ: "Mercy is not a word or a concept - he concludes - but a desire to be put into practice every day in a concrete way. And you can do this in many ways, helping the poor, the immigrants, the marginalized ... they are a living and vital way to experience mercy. People of good will who want to follow Christ, must know how to love by embracing the suffering".