This report is contributed by Philip Abou Zeid of Aid to the Church in Need.
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One of the Lebanese capital’s eastern suburbs is home to the Assyrian Christian quarter, with at its heart St. George’s Church, serving the faithful of the Assyrian Church of the East. A sign in front says “Martyrs’ Square,” in commemoration of a 1976 rocket attack on the church that killed 30 worshipers at the height of the country’s civil war. Today, St. George serves potential martyrs—Christians who have fled Iraq and Syria to escape ISIS terror.
On a recent afternoon, Reena stood in line outside the church, waiting to register her family and become eligible to receive food and other humanitarian assistance. Married and in her mid-30s, she is the mother of two daughters, ages 3 and 5. In the country for just a week, she was eager to tell the story of the family’s trek from Baghdad to northern Iraq, making it to Erbil, Kurdistan—after the ISIS onslaught of the summer of 2014— and subsequently to Lebanon.
Being on the run fit a pattern for Reena, who used to work for the Iraqi government as a topographer. Her bosses “were looking at us Christians differently than Muslim employees. We felt discrimination during the Saddam Hussein years and afterwards too,” she said.
ISIS took away the passports of Reena and her husband, but their sense of being violated goes much deeper: “ISIS is changing the names of our cities; the history of the Assyrians is being erased; my home is gone and home is where all my traditions are, where I made my identity. But my home is no longer mine. They have taken it. It now belongs to strangers. I must find another one,” she said, adding that “the only solution left is emigration. We need to find a new country.” But that route is closed to most Christian refugees.
More than ever, Reena is clinging to her faith, saying: “Everything we are doing is to defend our Christian beliefs. We refused to stay in Iraq in order not to be vanquished by force and be made to convert to Islam. We were praying all the way to Lebanon. Jesus never let us go. He was with us—He sent us to Lebanon.”
Asked for a message to Christians in the West, Reena said that “they need to help us more. Life in Lebanon is very expensive and very hard. The Church does what it can, but the state is helpless.” Yet, she also wants to tell Christians everywhere about the hidden blessing of her family’s suffering: “Stay strong in your faith. Never lose hope. Every day we pray and that is how we manage to survive. This experience made our faith stronger. ISIS showed us the ugly face of Islam—but their killing and atrocities made us see how beautiful our faith is.”
Aid to the Church in Need is 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) www.acnmalta.org (Malta)