Marin Knights, community aid Iraqis forced to flee ISIS

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By Christina Gray
(Photo by Christina Gray/Catholic San Francisco)
Dominican Sisters Maria Jerome and Clare Marie of Marin Catholic High School are pictured at a Knights of Columbus dinner in San Anselmo Nov. 22 with members of a Chaldean Catholic family who fled their village outside Mosul, Iraq, when ISIS took over
A Chaldean Catholic family who fled their home days after ISIS captured the city of Mosul in northern Iraq in June put a personal face to the suffering of Assyrian Christians at a Nov. 22 fundraising dinner hosted by the Marin Knights of Columbus Council #1292 in San Anselmo.

The family – a 51-year-old mother and her three teenage children – are living with relatives in the South Bay. The family patriarch remains in northern Iraq in an area not currently under ISIS control. Names are being withheld from this story for his protection.

Joe Tassone, a global studies teacher at Marin Catholic High School and a Marin Knight, organized the event with the goal of raising not just money but awareness of the scope of the Christian genocide in Iraq.

Tassone had the support of fellow Knight Joe Cresalia and Marin Catholic students who served the meal donated by Insalata Restaurant in San Anselmo. Six Dominican Sisters from Marin Catholic attended and sang for the crowd.

Marin Catholic’s director of mission and ministry offered an introductory prayer. “We want to stand with Assyrian Catholics who have held the faith longer than us,” said Msgr. Robert Sheeran in reference to the spread of Christianity outward from Mesopotamia.

More than 100 attendees pulled out their checkbooks to collect $7,000 to benefit the family and other Christian victims of ISIS who have been forced to leave their homes this summer with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Within days of the capture of Mosul, a city of over a million people 250 miles north of Baghdad, the region’s Christians, whose roots date back to the earliest days of Christianity, were given a choice by ISIS: Convert to Islam, pay a hefty “protection” tax, or stay and be beheaded.

According to the Assyrian International News Agency, there are no Christians remaining in or near Mosul. Tens of thousands of Christians and members of other persecuted groups are living in the mountains in makeshift tents, relying on whatever aid can be dropped by aircraft into the region or brought in through humanitarian organizations in border countries. People who chose to stay behind or had no other choice face slavery, rape, kidnap and death.

The agency also reported that all Christian institutions in Mosul, including ancient monasteries and venerated tombs and cemeteries have been destroyed, occupied or converted to mosques or shuttered.

Tassone located St. Mary’s, a Chaldean Catholic Church in Campbell, and drove south one Sunday to meet its pastor, Father Michael Barota. Many of Father Barota’s parishioners have ties to the Assyrian region, which Tassone said is often confused by Americans with Syria.

The Assyrians are a distinct ethnic group whose origins lie in northern Mesopotamia, what was once called Assyria. Today that ancient territory is part of several nations: the north of Iraq, part of southeast Turkey, northwest Iran and northeast Syria.

Inhabitants are a mostly Christian indigenous people, with most following various Eastern-rite churches such as the Assyrian Church of the East and its Western equivalent, the Chaldean Catholic Church under Rome. They speak, read and write distinct dialects of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Father Barota told Tassone about a new family in the parish who had recently fled Iraq under the threat of ISIS. Fortuitously, they had previously arranged six-month travel visas in the hope of attending a family wedding this year. When ISIS captured Mosul on June 10 the mother and three children left immediately for California where they now live divided among relatives who reside here permanently.

The father, who was not permitted to leave with his family, is in a small town under the protection of the Kurdish government.

Margaret Petros, a parishioner at St. Mary’s, a native of the Assyrian region and a longtime victims’ advocate, asked Father Barota after Mass one day if she could help the family navigate the complicated legal process of seeking asylum.

“Their visas were due to expire Dec. 12. Father Barota took me to the three children standing a few feet away and told them that their prayers had been answered,” Petros told Catholic San Francisco.

In August, Petros and the family began the asylum application. On Nov. 11, family members were interviewed in San Francisco by an asylum officer.

At their table at the fundraiser the children smiled shyly when greeted by guests, the youngest mugging with adolescent charm for the camera. “But they are scared,” Petros said. “They are worried about their father and miss him terribly, but do not want to go back.” If they have to go back, she said, they fear childhood abductions by ISIS.

“Young Christian women are sold on the open market and young boys are captured and brainwashed into extreme Islam or killed,” she said.

Tassone said $2,000 raised last week will be given to the family pay for legal costs and $5,000 will go to the Knights of Columbus Refugee Fund, which has already disbursed over $2 million for aid to displaced Christians.

From December 5, 2014 issue of Catholic San Francisco.
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