Jacksonville’s Iraqi Christians mourn friends, family slain back home

A church on Kernan Boulevard prays for those killed in massacre
By Timothy J. GibbonsAs the names of the dead were read, somber men in purple sashes lit black candles arranged in the shape of a cross in their memory.
 The packed sanctuary on Kernan Boulevard is on the other side of the world from where the dead lay, but that distance meant nothing for those gathered at St. Ephrem Syriac Catholic Church.
 Last week, close to 60 Iraqi Christians were killed in a Catholic church in Baghdad by Islamic militants. Among those slain were friends and family members of those in the Jacksonville congregation.
 “They mean a lot to me,” said the Rev. Selwan Taponi, pastor of the Kernan Boulevard church.
 Check out the photo gallery of Sunday’s memorial Mass
 Taponi was ordained at the Church of Our Lady of Deliverance, where the massacre took place, and served there for four years. He was friends with the two priests who were slain.
 His connections are not unique.
 “I used to go to that church,” said Caroline Jermanus, who moved to America 13 years ago. “I don’t think the people here have any idea of what is really happening in Iraq. There’s no democracy, no peace: People are dying.”
 Other Syriac Catholic churches in the U.S. and other countries have held similar demonstrations in the past week, hoping to draw attention to what they say is an ignored tragedy.
 “We want something from the U.S. government, to help Iraqi Christians, to save our people,” said Bassam Yousuf, who’s been in Jacksonville for six months.
 Yousuf’s friend Fadi Sabah was killed in the attacks, and the young man said it could have easily been him.
 “This could happen to any Christian in Iraq,” he said.
 With less than 3 percent of the population, the number of Christians in Iraq is small and shrinking, as those remaining flee to other countries. Nothing is done to protect them, several church members said Sunday, expressing a sense of betrayal that American troops would occupy Iraq for seven years and let such acts continue.
 “Without governments such as the United States or Europe putting pressure on the Iraqi government to protect these people, nothing will change,” said Wajeeh Demetree, who helped organize the event. “If our voices reach to someone, maybe they will do something.”
 Nevertheless, many of those attending the somber Mass and standing alongside the street afterward said they weren’t optimistic about change.
 All they could do now, they said, was hope and pray – for those who were killed and wounded, for those who are left behind.
 And, just maybe, by speaking out, they could make the plight of their compatriots a little better by letting the world know.
 Much of the memorial Mass followed the typical liturgy, but toward the end, 22-year-old Hisham Lawrence came forward to read a poem he had written in the days after the massacre.
 Lawrence grew up in the same neighborhood as those in the church, went to high school with some of them, knew many of those killed. While mourning, he said, he decided he didn’t want those deaths to be in vain.
 Translating his poem from Arabic would be difficult, he said, but its key message was simple: “Know me, all the world: I am an Iraqi Christian.”