Faith Matters: Dominican sisters work with displaced Iraqi Christians

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Yazidi women gather at an IDP camp in Iraq. (photo courtesy of sister Arlene Flaherty)
Alexander Santora/For the Jersey Journal By Rev. Alexander Santora/For the Jersey Journal
Imagine having minutes to leave everything behind and take what you can carry knowing that murderous Isis terrorists are about to take over your city.

On Aug. 5, Dominican Sisters of Iraq fled their convents in Mosul and Qaraqosh, Iraq, along with thousands of Christians to Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. Five months to that date, three U.S. Dominican sisters — including Arlene Flaherty of Jersey City — landed there as a fact-finding team to hear their stories.

It was Flaherty’s second trip. Her first was in 1999 after the Gulf War. “The departure of the Christian community under ISIS/IL terrorism was unforeseen, so people are still in shock and bewilderment,” said Flaherty, who witnessed difficult living conditions for people referred to as IDPs (internally displaced persons).

While the 130 Dominican Sisters could bunk with other religious in the Erbil region, some 300 families were first placed in a half-finished shopping mall made out of concrete in what could be described as a small office for each family. As winter approached, they could move to one-room aluminum shelters placed on concrete slabs and connected to what she described as “come and go” electricity.

Flaherty said it was freezing — about 30 degrees. “It takes a great deal of fortitude to try to live with one’s family in this harsh and unforgiving environment.” There is no heat and people use whatever they can to stay warm. Neither the Kurds nor the Iraqi government are providing schooling for the children, so they simply run around. They do have access to adequate food.

The native sisters want to create a school for the IDP Christian children by buying land, building a structure, hiring teachers and gathering the necessary equipment. “The Iraqi Dominicans are a formidable faith-force, but even they admit how wearying is the frustration of dealing with stonewalling at every turn,” noted Flaherty, who said that the Kurds are trying to secede from Iraq. So the turmoil of the displaced Christians is made more tentative by what the Kurds eventually do.

“One remarkable reality, however, is how the faith of this Christian community is sustaining,” said Flaherty. This was a 2,000-year-old vibrant community, once as large as 2 million before the Second Gulf War. It’s now down to about 120,000.

“As IDPs themselves, the Dominicans bring a true sense of solidarity, understanding and empathy to their work among their people,” she said. They are administering and working in clinics, organizing child welfare and child protection programs, providing pastoral care and helping to sustain this displaced Christian community, spiritually, physically and emotionally.

The irony in all this is that one of the oldest Christian communities in history survived under Saddam Hussein. To some degree, they hold the U.S. government responsible for their plight today. But they are not bitter, said Flaherty.

She participated in a Syriac rite Mass in Aramaic and could not understand the words but was moved by the experience. They experienced the body of Christ so deeply, and at one point a cross was passed around. “I was profoundly moved by the many hands, young and old, that reached out to touch it.” At the exchange of peace, she was greeted so warmly that she said, “I had the real experience of touching the cross.”

Flaherty observed that the ages of the Dominicans run the gamut. In 2000, nine of the younger sisters came to the U.S. to study and live with various Dominican communities. This confederation of different orders sponsored and financed this trip.

The U.S. sisters also traveled to Dohuk, which doubled its population to nearly 1 million with the IDPs flooding the region. Now, back in the states, the sisters want to get the word out and educate as many Americans as they can. “We need to put pressure,” said Flaherty. The IDPs are in a kind of limbo and want anything that could give them a chance to either return home or start life all over again somewhere else.”

The last night before they left for the U.S., Flaherty presented the Iraqi Dominicans with a relic of St. Catherine of Siena retrieved from an 1878 altar in her mother house in Blauvelt, N.Y. Then Flaherty read a letter from her prioress who imparted it to this Iraqi community of Dominicans devoted to St. Catherine, a great Dominican saint. The prioress shared repentance and compassion for their suffering and offered an apology. Flaherty ended, “It was important for the Iraqi sisters to hear this.”

Rev. Alexander Santora is the pastor of The Church of Our Lady of Grace & St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, 07030, fax (201) 659-5833, email: