By Oliver Maksan
There is no doubt in the mind of 23-year-old Haram. With his second child on the way, he is prepared to rush his family out of town at a moment’s notice: “My tank is always full,” he says. “If the situation escalates I’ll grab my wife and child and flee,” he adds with determination. Haram’s older brother has also made his choice—to stay, no matter what. Mohand’s certainty reflects an even bigger decision he made many years ago: to become a Chaldean Catholic priest.
Along with some 5,000 fellow believers—most of whom have fled there from overrun Christian communities—the brothers are trapped in the Iraqi town of Kirkuk, the capital of an oil-rich region that has been fought over for years already. Today, not even 20 miles away, murderous militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—who have already conquered huge swaths of northern Iraq—are poised to attack the Kurdish forces protecting the town.
The odds are not in favor of Kirkuk’s fearful inhabitants, Christian and Muslim alike. As Bishop Yousif Mirkis puts it, “the jihadists don’t only hate [Christians], but also all those who do not agree with their worldview.”
Mohand shares his bishop’s concern about Christians wanting to flee to the West, bound never to return. It’s an option, though, he says, only for “well-educated, prosperous families.” Those without means are forced to stay. Haram is lucky to have a job as the bishop’s driver, with access to a car and some cash. The bulk of Christians, he says, “don’t stand a chance” because “the Shiites are in charge here and they employ their own people.”
Haram admires his brother’s courage. “I love my homeland and my faith,” he says, “but even before ISIS advanced it was not easy to be a Christian here.” Mohand (26), who’s known he wanted to become a priest since he was 14, has no hard feelings. But his own position is rock steady: “I see the priest as a burning candle of faith and hope. If it goes out then faith will extinguish as well.”
With three more years to go before ordination, he is committed to helping his people better understand their faith. “It’s often only a faith of habit. But it must be a faith of conscious conviction,” says Mohand; “Christians are supposed to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Without salt food does not taste at all. That is the Christian calling here in Iraq as well.”
Meanwhile, the local Church is doing what it can to help people cope with shortages, providing food to some 500 mostly Muslim families. “Our faith teaches us not to discriminate,” says Mohand; “the love of God is for all people, whether Muslims or Christians. That’s how I see our role here. Jesus Himself also planted the seed of our faith here in the Middle East. And so I belong here.” Come what may.
Oliver Maksan is a reporter for Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)