Archbishop says Iraq at difficult time in history

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Church works to aid refugees
By Darlene Polachic, The Starphoenix
Father Yousif Thomas Mirkis, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah in Iraq, was in Saskatoon recently visiting family.
The Chaldean Church is an Eastern rite church that was planted by the Apostle Thomas and still uses the Aramaic language. Recent archeological discoveries near Baghdad unearthed what may be the oldest Christian church in the world, built in 79 AD.

There are one and a half million Chaldeans in the world, with about one million living outside of Iraq. Mirkis’s family is part of the Chaldean diaspora.

Mirkis, who was born in Mosul, Iraq, has a unique insight into the situation in Iraq today.

“This is a very difficult time in our history,” he says. “What’s happening in Mosul and the Nineveh Valley is awful. ISIS forced 130,000 Christians to leave their homes there. Thirteen towns and villages are empty. No one remains. ISIS said, ‘If you become Muslim you can stay.’ Nobody did. The world must see it as truly amazing that these Christians considered their faith to be the most precious thing they own.”

For the past year, Mirkis and a team of dedicated volunteers have been busy caring for these people who are refugees in their own country. The Kirkuk area is harsh and mountainous, and does not have the infrastructure to handle all these extra residents.

“This city of 1.5 million has welcomed 500,000 more. Many have been taken in by relatives,” Mirkis says. “I heard about a family with a three-room house and 71 persons living in it. The grandfather had a heart attack and his sons said, ‘Is this because you’re tired of the noise and the crowd in the house?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘please don’t let them go. It is a sin not to offer hospitality.’ ” The archbishop and his team feed 800 refugee families, find shelter for them (“We refuse to let them live in tents”), get the children into schools and enrol the youth in university. They provide medical care for the sick and have helped locate jobs for 30 per cent to 40 per cent of them. It is all a miracle, he says.

A dispensary with a team of volunteer lab technologists, ophthalmologists and ENT people welcomes about 70 people a week for specialized treatment. Of the 15 volunteer doctors, 10 are Muslim.

Mirkis offers free spectacles to all students.

Many of the children attend a church-run Christian school. “Some of their parents are prisoners of ISIS,” Mirkis says. “We have a good team of volunteers considering how to absorb the trauma from the children. We help them externalize their feelings through activities like I Can Sing Even With Tears,’ a special event with sketches and music. It was very healing.”

Water and electricity are concerns. “We can access national electricity for only six hours a day when it’s hot, and water only two hours every four days between 3 and 5 a.m.” To deal with the shortages, the archbishop purchased electrical generators and dug three wells.

Mirkis says the situation in Iraq affects the whole world. “ISIS, or Daesh, controls eight million persons. This is an ideology that thinks nothing of beheading people, even on You Tube. You can’t see that and not realize that no one is far from barbary. Nobody can say, ‘It doesn’t concern me.’

“This is not a question of Christianity and Islam. This is a question of ideology – a very dangerous ideology. If ISIS takes over any more territory, it will be a cancer very difficult to stop. We can’t afford to ignore an ideology that believes God is with them. You can’t make war to God.”

In 2006, Mirkis founded the Academy for Human Sciences in Baghdad, where Iraq’s intelligentsia and elite gather to study and discuss the country’s problems. “I am not the bishop of Christians only,” he says. “I am the bishop of Iraqis. The Iraqi people are my children, my brothers and sisters.”

Mirkis especially grieves for the Usidi people, an Iraqi minority that has suffered greatly from ISIS terror, which “killed the men and took 2,800 women as slaves.”

“I fear worse is coming,” he says. “A German journalist who was somehow allowed to spend some weeks with Daesh says it is much worse than we imagine.”

ISIS is currently about 30 kilometres from Kirkuk, which is being protected by the Kurdish Peshmerga (“which is there to guard the oil, not the people”).

What can Canadians do?

“Pray for the people. Pray for the unity of Iraq. It is being pulled apart by different populations who want to establish their identity. We will have to work hard to save Iraq.”

The first Iraqis to Saskatoon arrived 40 years ago. Today the Saskatoon Chaldean community has about 250 families and a thriving Chaldean Catholic congregation.