Local man visits Iraqi Christian refugees

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By Robert Marchant Published 12:00 am, Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Tom Gallagher sits in his home in Riverside. Photo: Kyle Michael King / / Stamford Advocate freelance
Photo: Kyle Michael King /
Tom Gallagher sits in his home in Riverside.
GREENWICH — Tom Gallagher is a regular parishioner at St. Catherine of Siena, where taking communion is an expression of faith that entails little more effort than a short drive on Sunday morning.

Last month, Gallagher found himself taking communion in Iraq with Christians displaced by war and persecution, not far from territory where overt displays of Christianity could bring a death sentence.

“Very moving,” Gallagher said of the experience. He went to northern Iraq to report on dangers facing Christians in the region for the National Catholic Reporter.

More than 125,000 Christian men, women and children have been forced from their homes over the past year by the spread in northern Iraq of the Islamic militant organization known as IS or the Islamic State group. Gallagher took part in a tour of the region with high-ranking Catholic clergy and an aid organization.

About 300,000 Christians are believed to live in Iraq, a number that has been steadily dropping, and the mission spearheaded by two Catholic bishops was aimed at showing support and increasing aid to the imperiled Christian community.

Gallagher, a corporate lawyer who has reported for the National Catholic Reporter, joined Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, and Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., on a tour of the refugee camps. Gallagher coordinated the trip with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

The Greenwich lawyer from Riverside was moved by the plight of Chaldean, Orthodox and Syrian Christians, along with a smattering of Roman Catholics, who were displaced by the ISIS invasion of their homes near Erbil.

“They left with the shirts on their backs, babies in their arms. It was a sea of people,” Gallagher said, “How are they doing today? The shock seems to have worn off. But the camps are full, and they’re living in box containers, 20 feet by 7 feet, two windows and a door. They’re a people in crises, and there’s no relief in sight.”

The mission was aimed at improving aid for the displaced population.

“I and Bishop Murphy and Msgr. Kevin Sullivan have just spent almost five days going to places that are really ‘loves and fishes’ operations, creating miracles with the little bit of money that they have,” Cardinal Dolan said in a statement. “We literally stand breathless and in admiration for the work they are doing. Think of what they can do with 10 times more resources.”

Dolan was a particularly compelling figure in the camps, Gallagher recalled, putting his engaging manner to good use. “It played to his strengths,” said the visiting journalist.

Amid the misery of the situation, Gallagher said, he was impressed by the strength of the Christian community and its determination to hold onto its ancient homeland while maintaining the faith.

“Watching the people manage this trauma, there was real determination there,” he said.

Another positive aspect of the journey was to see the cooperative approach that Kurds and other non-Christian Iraqis have taken to protect and defend followers of the Gospels.

“Christians and Muslims get along in many parts of the world. That’s important to remember. There are those positive examples,” noted Gallagher.

Gallagher, who is more used to office work than dusty car rides with donkeys and palm trees for scenery, said his stint as a foreign correspondent was exciting.

Back in the United States, he said he feels a renewed urgency to assist in relief efforts and offer his services to the Dominican Sisters, who have taken a major role in the field.

Without hesitation, he said, “I’d love to go back.”