This report is contributed by Oliver Maksan of Aid to the Church in Need.
* * *
The Holy Year of Mercy that was solemnly inaugurated by Pope Francis in Rome on Dec. 8 — the Feast of the Immaculate Conception — is being hailed with joy by Catholics throughout the Arab world – from Morocco to Iraq. International Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) gathered impressions from across the Middle East.
Father Dankha Issa is a Chaldean monk in Alqosh. Last summer, hundreds of Christian refugees found refuge in the city after their villages were seized by jihadists. The ancient, exclusively Christian city is situated in the northern part of Iraq. As the crow flies, only about 10 miles separate the monastery of the Virgin in the Corn Field from the front line of ISIS-held territory.
“We are very thankful to Our Holy Father that he has proclaimed a Holy Year of Mercy. It is a time of grace for us,” the priest told ACN. He himself had been forced to flee Mosul in June of 2014 after it fell to ISIS, or Daesh, as the terrorist organization is known in Arabic. Father Issa said: “This Jubilee gives us new hope. Let us hope that this year will extinguish the fires of hate and bring peace.
“In this year our attention is particularly drawn to how merciful God is with us sinners. God forgives us. But this also means that we have to forgive each other. Even the people of Daesh, who have done so many evil things to us. After all, as a Christian you also have to love your enemies. This is almost humanly impossible. But it is easier through faith. God is capable of everything.
“Of course we hope that God will open and soften the hearts of the people of Daesh so that they cease their murderous doings. Let us pray that he will dispel the hate and violence in their hearts and let love take hold.”
The priest’s monastery wants to make it possible for the refugees to experience the mercy of God over the course of the year. “We will continue to support them with food and the like. However, we especially want to pray together, above all the rosary. This is what makes it possible for us suffering limbs of the Body of Christ to become one with the universal Church and the Pope.”
In Lebanon, Father Raymond Abdo wants to use the Holy Year as an opportunity to come up with a Christian response to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. “The people who persecute Christians have to come into contact with Jesus Christ. Mercy thus means not allowing ourselves to hate these people,” the Carmelite from the northern city of Tripoli said.
He added: “We need the courage to pray for them and to love them. Because when they persecute Christians, they do not know what they are doing. This [prayer and love] is what Jesus did on the cross.
“The Church in the Middle East plays a role in many institutions that are visited by non-Christians. We have to love these people and show the mercy of the Gospels to them by example. Jesus did this with the Gentiles.” In the school in which the priest teaches, 65% of the students are Muslim. “Respecting the Muslim students in the same way we respect the Christian students: this is what mercy means to me,” he said.
The Year of Mercy is also receiving attention in Gaza.There are only about 1300 Christians. The number of Catholics is hardly higher than 160. Father Mario da Silva is pastor for the Catholic parish of the Holy Family. The Brazilian religious from the Argentine Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE) has been living in Gaza City for several years. During this time he has witnessed several wars.
“This Holy Year is a big chance,” he told ACN, adding: “We Christians can re-learn what the mercy of God means. This includes re-thinking the reality of sin. We are dependent upon the forgiveness of God. This is an opportunity to find out something new about the sacrament of penance.
“From the first moment I arrived in Gaza, of course I felt the hatred that the people harbor because of Israeli politics. This hatred is rooted in the injustice the people here experience every day. It may be less pronounced among the Christians because forgiveness belongs to our faith. But of course they also know this feeling. That is only human.
“The wars, the destruction, the high unemployment rate that also affects the Christians: all this eats away at the people. However, as a priest I do not feel it is my first priority to change the political situation. That is not in our hands, even though the Church of course draws attention to injustice as such. However, what we can do is to help convert our hearts.”
In Egypt, Father Beshoi has been the priest in Azareia, a Christian town in Upper Egypt near Asyut. The Coptic Catholic cleric wants to make the sacrament of penance more accessible to his parishioners again, saying: “We need the forgiveness of God. Here, there are a lot of cases of revenge because of insults to family honor. These are often caused by something trivial. But the situations often escalate until there are casualties.
“And that happens here—even though only Christians live in our town. But they have assimilated to the Islamic culture that surrounds us. In Islam, God is only seen as a lawmaker who metes out punishment when His commandments are not heeded. However, I want to change this mentality. I want to show God to my brothers and sisters as a merciful Father who forgives us. However, this is also why we have to forgive each other. Thus, the Year of Mercy has come at just the right moment for me.”
There are a lot of problems, especially among the adolescents in the town. The pastor said: “Many take drugs because they feel unloved or misunderstood. I want to show them that God loves them and is waiting for them with open arms. I know that God can work miracles in the souls. Just recently, an almost 60-year-old man came to me for confession: for the first time in his life! I hope that I will see many such small miracles over the course of this year!”
The Holy Year is also being celebrated at the outermost Western edge of the Arab world. Admittedly, there are hardly any Catholics living in Morocco and the vast majority of these are foreigners. However, the small local Catholic community takes an active part in the life of the World Church. A good example are the Sisters of the Carmelite convent of Tangiers. “We embrace the Holy Year with pleasure and gratitude. It is a great grace that we want to experience together with the entire Church. With all of our poverty and weakness and in recognising our sinfulness, we are on our way to the Father, whose embrace we have need of,” Sister Maria Virtudes told ACN. The Spanish nun is the prioress of her community.
The sisters began the Jubilee with a prayer vigil. The Sister said: “We prayed to the Lord who is present in the Eucharist. In doing so, we took turns in singing the hymn that was composed for the Holy Year and held long moments of silent worship. As we did this, we were, together with the Immaculate Virgin, in communion with the entire Church.”
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)