02/13/2023, 20.37
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Iskenderun priest: earthquake brings Churches together, Christians and Muslims pray together

by Dario Salvi

Fr Antuan Ilgıt, a Jesuit, reflects upon the past week, since a devastating earthquake struck. The cathedral might have collapsed, but Caritas is providing relief, with a thousand meals a day for the displaced and aid sent to a devastated Antakya. His thoughts also go to Syrian refugees who cannot be abandoned because “We must go where no one can or wants to go”.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Fr Antuan Ilgıt, SJ, is the chancellor of the Apostolic Vicariate of Anatolia. He spoke to AsiaNews about the daily reality in Iskenderun (Alexandretta) and more, a week after a devastating earthquake struck his country, Turkey, and neighbouring Syria.

For him this “tragic experience” has led to de facto ecumenism among Christians to “help each other”; interfaith dialogue has become a living experience of "openness" to others and “shared prayers and Mass, which includes some Muslims.”

“From the start,” Fr Ilgit notes, “we have been sharing, helping displaced people, both Turks and foreign refugees alike. What a tragic event.”

“On a personal level I tried to use my knowledge of Mersin, my home town, and the ties I have developed over the years, like with the sub-prefect, to collect aid and meet basic needs like getting power back up.”

“Like everyone, I cope with difficulties every day. For a week, we have not been able to wash because there is no water; we only use wipes for a minimum of personal hygiene. I really feel like the shepherd among a flock of sheep, and that’s no metaphor.”

“People express their feelings more easily when they meet me; they cry desperately but a word of comfort can immediately produce some effect.".

“Here in Iskenderun we are in a good position compared to Antakya; this morning I spoke with the local priest, Fr Francis (Dondu)[*] who describes the situation as very serious.”

“Here, the cathedral has collapsed, but the clergy house remained standing, even though all the buildings around it also collapsed; for this reason, we have become a point of reference for relief operations.”

Fr Antuan describes himself as "the only Turkish Jesuit and the only Catholic priest of Turkish ethnicity" in the area "at the service of the Church of Turkey", a country where he moved permanently a year ago after many years abroad for study and mission.

“I consider a grace the fact of returning and sharing my experience because it is a painful moment in our history" and there are so many needs.

"Here in Iskenderun we are getting a lot of aid, which we sort out as soon as it arrives, and send to other areas.

“We managed to send three shipments to Antakya and we use the Mersin clergy house, which partly survived, to accommodate the displaced, Catholics and Orthodox, without distinction. This is what I call the ecumenism of tragedy, which brings together Latins, Armenians, Orthodox and others.

"There are Muslims who ask to take part in the Mass, who need to pray and feel God close to them, as a source of consolation.

"The earthquake has united us. Some good has come out of the huge devastation, teaching us that if the great choose war", peoples and individuals "can instead commit themselves to peace . . . We experienced this on our bodies!”

The clergyman was born in Germany in 1972 into a Muslim migrant family. He moved to Turkey at a very young age, where he got a degree in economics from Gazi University in Ankara.

When he was living in the capital, he underwent a conversion to Catholicism and was baptised in 1997 at the Church of St Therese of the Child Jesus; this was followed by religious studies and the novitiate that ended in priestly ordination and the celebration of his first Mass (See article).

"At the time of the earthquake (4.17 am, Monday, 6 February) I didn't leave the room right away," he notes. "The earthquake lasted two minutes; then, I went out with some nuns and two Italian volunteers who had come knocking on my door.

"The cathedral was gone, in ruin, only the apse, the tabernacle and the statues of Our Lady and St Anthony were spared. I walked on the rubble to get the Blessed Sacrament. . . . It was incredible to see such destruction where, a few hours before, I had celebrated Mass.”

“The cook with her husband arrived immediately, then the parishioners with blankets, barefoot, in tears for losing the cathedral, their home.

"I have experienced many painful moments in my life, but this one is the first of this kind;” Fr Ilgit explained. “The comfort and collaboration with the vicar, Bishop Paolo Bizzeti, and  the head of the local Caritas John Farhad Sadredin are important.”

On his Facebook page, he describes how he informed the prelate about the earthquake and the first responses to the emergency.

After a week it is still an emergency: water pipes and the sewer system are broken, buildings are piles of rubble.

At the clergy house, the cook is making about a thousand meals a day compared to a few dozen before.

“The sea has retreated but of all the tall, multi-storey buildings, nothing is left, even in the posh neighbourhoods. Digging goes but plundering has started by groups of outsiders looting shops and homes."

"Our situation is surreal, but we live day by day, coping with daily demands, with no thought for the future. Once we have passed this phase, long-term reconstruction projects will be needed, starting with the cathedral, which is everyone's home.

“Finally, we must continue to take care of the many refugees (from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan) who put their trust in us. As Caritas Anatolia, we cannot abandon them and as Saint Ignatius might say: We must go where no one can or wants to go.”

[*] Parish priest of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.

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See also
Vicar of Anatolia warns that the Christian community is at ‘great risk' after the earthquake
23/06/2023 18:56
A volunteer in Turkey remembers Fr Andrea Santoro
In Antioch Catholics and Orthodox celebrate Easter together
For Fr Tom, abducted in Yemen, Holy Thursday prayer and adoration for the martyrs
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Antioch, the heart of Turkish Christianity, wounded by the earthquake
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