Behind them: a cloudy sky, a Church with a golden cross shining on top. To their left, a symbol of the ancient civilization they descended from and to their right, the tattered ruins of their current existence. Ahead of them: the Holy Family and an angel, guiding their steps to an unknown future.
While some may see this description as a mere artistic representation, for Iraqi and Syrian refugees it is their present reality.
Yesterday morning, Pope Francis was presented with a portrait depicting this reality shortly after his Mass at Casa Santa Marta. Adding to the powerful image’s message is the fact that it was painted by an Iraqi refugee living in Jordan. The portrait was presented to the Holy Father by Fr. Rif’at Bader, director of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Amman, who concelebrated at the morning Mass. Fr. Bader was in Rome to meet with representatives of the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi to organize Holy Land pilgrimages in Jordan, the site of many biblical events such as the Baptism of Christ.
Fr. Bader sat down with ZENIT and spoke with us regarding the moving portrait given to the Holy Father, the plight of refugees still clinging to hope despite the sufferings they have faced, and the needs of those who are in the front lines helping in the material, educational and spiritual needs of those escaping the violent persecution from the so-called “Islamic State”.
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ZENIT: You met with the Holy Father following the Mass at Casa Santa Marta. Did you tell him anything that you can share with us?
Fr. Bader: I gave him a letter from the Iraqi Christians in Jordan, especially the families who are residing in my parish in Naour, the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish for the Latin Patriarchate. And we hosted 50 persons from September until now and they wrote a letter to his Holiness, thanking him for his prayers and encouragement. They also asked him to pray for the terrorists so that God can help them to be aware of human dignity and to rediscover their humanity and the humanity of others. Plus, I gave his Holiness, this image which is drawn by an Iraqi refugee who unfortunately does not want to reveal his name as he is always afraid. This is the case of many our brothers and sisters in the Middle East: they are afraid: the fear of the future, the fears of others. And this is why he doesn’t not want to mention his name but he’s an Iraqi Christian refugee, who came with the people. Right now we have 8,000 people in Jordan. They are surrounded by the help of Caritas Jordan especially, who opened many centers to host them. One of the centers was in my parish in Naour and this man is really an artist. He was thinking to have a souvenir for himself in Naour and he drew this very nice and impressive picture. And this represents the exodus of Christians from Iraq, especially in Mosul and the region of Nineveh and it represents what they left behind them.
On the left there is a winged bull, Lamassu, which represents the Assyrian civilization and the walls of Mosul that goes back to many centuries and of course the Church. The Church, as a building, is behind them. The Church, as a faith, is in their hearts. That’s why with the people, going out of Iraq, there are priests, nuns, old men and women who are dressed in the folkloric dress of Nineveh and Mosul. There are sick people carried by their fathers and young men and women who are going out of their countries, full of hope for the future.
But in this picture, the people are guided by the Holy Family: St. Joseph, Mary and Jesus on the donkey. Why? Because this Holy Family, which is represented always by this image, are the first refugee family. We have also see the guardian angel who looks at the Holy Family and the families of Iraq as they are refugees. That’s why I say this picture is full of sadness but also it is full of hope. We hope that in the future, they will come back to their homelands in order to continue the many centuries of Christian presence in this region. If they will not be able to come back, at least they will keep their faith in their hearts and they will keep good memories of this region. The Christian faith, represented in this picture, is not something we can sell or buy. It is very precious in the hearts of the human beings. They were ready to be killed. They were as the Copts did, they were ready also to leave everything behind them, all the treasures of the earth are behind them, but in front of them is the Holy Family which represents their faith. And under the picture, there is a paragraph from the Holy Father’s letter to the Christians of the Middle East that he sent two days before Christmas last year, which says “You are like leaven in the dough…, the greatest source of enrichment in the region is the presence of Christians themselves, your presence. Thank you for your perseverance!”
And beside this paragraph, there is the logo of Caritas Jordan, that helped these refugees very much and the logo of our abouna.org website which is the Catholic Center for Studies and Media Because we have followed the steps to drawing this picture that took many weeks.
ZENIT: The image itself is powerful, but what makes it even more powerful is the story behind it: this Iraqi refugee who clings to his faith despite all the hardships. When you told the Pope the story behind this, what was his reaction?
Fr. Bader: In his eyes, I saw how impressed he was. He held my hand and said: “Thank you. Keep faith [alive], keep faith [alive]” And I thanked him in the name of the Jordanian people for his prayers and I told him that we were praying for [him].
ZENIT: I saw several photos on abouna.org of you visiting the father of the Jordanian pilot Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was killed by the Islamic State. After one month since his tragic death, what is the feeling right now in Jordan?
Fr. Bader: The King himself, King Abdullah II delivered a speech two days ago to the Jordanian people and to the world. He said something very dear to us as Christians. He said we are one united family Christians and Muslims together. That we are looking forward to build a new future for future generations that is not built upon speeches of hatred but on speeches of openness and goodwill. Really, this means that we are preparing a new future. Of course, the reality now is the case of war, this time of war against these terrorist. But we are aware that this war is not only missiles and airplanes. It is also an intellectual and ideological war and as Christians, we are involved. Perhaps not all of us are involved in the planes or airstrikes, but we are involved in the intellectual war, how to un-root the seeds of hatred in the minds of people. We are trying to show how to look to religion not as a part of the problem but as part of the solution and how to not misuse religion in hatred, fights and killing the people. We try to show how to be united as sons and daughters of Abraham, sons and daughters of God, and sons and daughters of humanity. How to face the obstacles and challenges of the future to be united and to make a plan on how to educate the new generations of mutual respect and the use of religion in the service of peace. Really, the death of our pilot was tragic, was very sad. Now we are going out of the sadness in order to look towards the future with new eyes. And these eyes are the eyes of respect and saving human dignity.
ZENIT: One last question: many of our ZENIT readers hear news from the Middle East, they see the suffering and persecution of Christians. They look at these images and ask: “What can I do?” You are in Jordan, a country that has been receiving refugees from Iraq and Syria. What can people do to help?
Fr. Bader: I think we have a very direct way to help, which is to help the refugees and this is an emergency case. We have a lot of refugees who are not able to live in houses. They live in big holes and in very bad situations. In spite of the help that Caritas is doing, they are not able to do anything more without the help of others.
I, here through ZENIT, call on the humanitarian agencies to help Caritas because they are doing a great job but they are also suffering a lot because they are alone. Some help is coming but it is not sufficient. We are working to open new schools for the refugee children, which is very important and how to also rent some houses for the refugees. The people who are in Naour were helped by the embassy of the United Arab Emirates and now they can go to live inside houses, rented houses for one year. I think this also can be called up for other embassies. Where are the European countries? They are refusing right now to give visas for these people. At least, send some help. Let the people live inside houses and not in big holes.
These are the direct and urgent needs right now and everybody can help in this. But also the other one is, that the war against extremism is also the war against humanity. Humanity is facing these groups and these mentalities. We have to be united in solidarity, to promote dialogue, to promote cooperation and to promote the values of human freedom and rights.
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On ZENIT’s website:
To read the letter sent by Iraqi Christians to the Holy Father, go to:
On the WEB:
For more on the Catholic Center for Media and Studies, go to: http://en.abouna.org/
To donate to Caritas Jordan, visit their site: http://www.caritasjordan.org.jo/