Exiled Iraqi Archbishop to West: ‘Live Your Faith’

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Chris Sheridan
An image from a photo exhibit on Syria shows Father Ibrahim leading a happy group of young children at St. Francis parish in Aleppo.
The words to the 1988 Bobby McFerrin novelty ditty could sound trite coming from someone else. But coming from Amel Nona, the exiled archbishop of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Mosul, Iraq, that simple advice provided a powerful witness to the strength of his Catholic faith and to the faith of the Christians who remain in the strife-torn Holy Land.

Speaking at the seventh New York Encounter Jan. 17 at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Manhattan, Archbishop Nona had just finished describing conditions in his homeland, where he said merely going to Easter Mass was a supreme act of faith and courage. He was then asked what Christians in the West could do in a world rife with implacable hatred, violence and mindless terrorism.

“Live your faith,” Archbishop Nona told the packed auditorium during a panel discussion in which he was joined by Father Pier Battista Pizzaballa, the Franciscan custos of the Holy Land.

The discussion was moderated by Marta Zaknoun, a freelance journalist from Toronto who was born and raised in Jerusalem.

“You have over here everything to live your faith in a very easy way,” continued Archbishop Nona, who was appointed bishop of St. Thomas Chaldean eparchy of Australia and New Zealand last March.

“You can go to church every Sunday without fear. You can live in your house without fear. So I think it’s very easy to live your Christian life and faith here. And be happy, because there’s no reason to be not happy. “

While he acknowledged that people in the West do encounter difficulties in their daily lives, he said to be consumed by worry and anger is to discount the gifts we have already received in such abundance. “Always we are in difficulties, but it is very important that we are free to live our faith,” he said.

For the besieged citizens of Mosul attending Sunday Mass was a supreme act of courage. He said many went to Mass not knowing if they would return home. “But, every Sunday, the Church was full of Christians and they were happy! I think the most important thing you can do here in the Western world is to be happy in your life. You have all reasons to be happy. But the most important reason is you have the Christian faith and I think there is nothing else to say.”

Organizers of New York Encounter told CNY some 7,500 people attended over the weekend. New York Encounter is a three-day cultural event that includes public discussions, exhibits and live performances.

The event was founded in 2010 by Communion and Liberation, a Catholic lay ecclesial movement, to give “witness to a new, flourishing life generated by faith. It is open to people of all belief, traditions and cultures. Some 300 volunteers planned, organized and worked at the event. This year the theme of New York Encounter was “Longing for the Sea and Yet Not Afraid.”

As to the future of the beleaguered Christian community in the Holy Land and across the Middle East, both Archbishop Nona and Father Pizzaballa were optimistic about the longer term, if only because of the faith, courage and resilience of Christians there.

“In front of all this evil, these provocations, the answer can be a positive answer that only faith can give,” Father Pizzaballa said. “From the human point of view, you just see desolation, destruction, the end of the world. Faith is able to see something more, beyond what we see. Prophet Isaiah talked about how Jerusalem was a wonderful city full of peace and joy, but what was in front of his eyes was desolation. Jerusalem was destroyed; it was not a beautiful city. He was able to see something different because his eyes were full of hope and faith. So in front of all this evil you have to remain human and human means to remain Christian.

“For us, the Christian faith is the fullness of our humanity. I saw a lot of evil, destruction, hatred. But I see also wonderful examples of life, of people that are ready to give their life but not to abandon their people, their faith, their Jesus. They are able to give. And this says to me that I don’t know how the Middle East will be, I have no idea. No one knows. But there is a future and we will be part of this future. The Christian community will remain and will be the light that will continue to enlighten the Middle East in the Holy Land.”