When the Word of God takes precedence over the “Occupation of Iraq”

priest_in_iraq1.jpgPosted by ACN News on
Board Administrator


When the Word of God takes precedence over the “Occupation of Iraq”

During a visit to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN)’s head office, Father Pios Affas of the Syrian Catholic Church, also director of the Biblical Center of Mosul, was interviewed by Mario Bard.

A fact to point out: in October 2007, Father Pios was abducted for nine days, and has described this as “a wonderful experience.”

Below you can find the interview with this warm, sensible man full of hope.

Q.: Father Pios, what is the current situation of the Iraqi people, notably the Iraqi Christians?

A.: First of all, we are in a very painful state of occupation, disastrous even, because it has disrupted all the structures of the country, on all levels. As a result, the entire population is suffering from this occupation that has lasted six years, and whose effects are very destructive for the people of all denominations.
At the present, there is an improvement, but it is very slow. And every so often the bombings, attacks and abductions return. It doesn’t stop. We are living in a chaos that offers no way to have a security that is solid, reliable and stable.

Q.: And what is the situation for Christians?

A.: Like the other citizens, they suffer from this chaos. They may at times suffer a bit more because of the Islamic fundamentalist movements. Because they are more targeted, they are sometimes forced to leave the country, which has a damaging effect. Christians of all denominations have spread out in the world. The others await their turn. The people are always thinking about leaving [the country], to look for work and better security.

Q.: What is the work of your Center and how can it be useful to Iraq’s development?

A.:(Answers enthusiasticly) This is your best question! Really this Center brings a joy and a hope because we persevere. Despite all the tragic circumstances we have come to know since the fall of the regime [of Saddam Hussein], we did not want to stop. The number of students has decreased a bit, surely because many people have emigrated to the villages.
Two years ago, instead of 140 students, we received only 40. But it continues anyway – with two years for the New Testament and two years for the Old. There are already eight cycles of students that have completed their four-year studies, for a total of 370 students who have received their final diploma. This gives some hope because it creates a foundation, people who really have a Biblical culture that can be used in catechesis, in the activities of the Church, everywhere – in Mosul and in the vicinity. In fact, normally we have students from all surrounding villages, but at the moment, it is no longer the case; it is only those from Mosul who come.
(With regards to the publishing work of the Center): Since the year 2000, we have been translating and publishing the Dossiers de la Bible (Bible files) that are produced by Service Biblique Catholique Ø©vangile et Vie. We are now at number 37, with four numbers per year. Little by little, this publication is seeing improvements: as much with the printing, the page set-up, the paper quality, the cover, etc. We have one thousand copies and there are 500 to 600 copies sold and this, at a very low price because it is supported [in part] by Aid to the Church in Need. It is really a work that gives hope for the Church of Iraq.
In addition to this, we began publishing, also in 2000, books from the collection Recherches bibliques (Bible research). We have published its 14th number. Two years ago, when I was in Canada for the UCIP (International Catholic Union of the Press) congress, where we received the gold medal for our magazine Al fikr al Masih, I found, with great joy, a book from the collection Commentaires, commentaires du Nouveau Testament (Comments on the New Testament). It is specialists who write, but who write for the general public. Very simple, but very powerful, very solid. Our goal was to publish ten books from this collection. The first to be published was St. Matthew, and now St. John. In five years, the ten books will have been published and distributed in Mosul and in surrounding areas.
At the moment, it is a bit unfortunate that there are not many readers, but the fact remains that these books are published and are available to people at a low price. I will give you an example: the one of Matthew (300 pages) that was published barely a year ago is sold for 3,000 dinars, which is the equivalent of $3.00 or less! That is unthinkable where you live! (Bursts into laughter.)

Q.: It is really exceptional that in these times of war, you were able to publish these books!

A.: It is the grace of God that gave us courage. I was abducted a year and a half ago, for nine days, and on the day following my release, I continued the courses at the Center. The courses and the publications were in no way stopped! That makes me happy! I was with a young student, a fellow priest, when we were abducted. We remained in the area [following the experience], in Mosul, and continued our apostolate and our activities. We did not flee! (Laughter.)

Q.: Indeed, Father Pios, as you just mentioned, you were abducted for nine days in October 2007. What did you take with you from that experience?

A.: It was a wonderful experience for me and for my fellow student! Because once we were kidnapped, we stared death in the face. And instead of being afraid, we were in peace, in confidence. We put ourselves in the hands of the Lord. “If you want us to continue our apostolate, you will help us get out, if not, that is your will.” We were able to speak in this way in our prayers, in the secrecy of our souls. When we were released, it was really a new life that opened for us. We felt a worldwide movement of solidarity with us: the prayers that were really able to contribute to our liberation and especially the plea from Pope Benedict XVI.
Once freed, we said it in our testimonies, in our sermons, in taking the example of St. Peter, when he was rescued from prison and the chains fell from his wrists, and he said: “Now I know for certain that the Lord sent his angel.” We felt the same way. So, it is a new life that has opened up to us: we gave all our efforts to serve the Word of God and our people.
We did not want to leave [Mosul] because we wanted to give courage to the Christians that remained. And it encourages them to stay. When they see their priests remaining, it gives them more courage and hope.

Q.: What does the Year for Priests that began on June 19, 2009 represent to you?

A.: I was in Rome at the time and I assisted in the celebration of the Vespers presided by the Pope in St. Peter’s Basilica. I have really felt – and I have been a priest for 47 years – that the priesthood is first a service; being of service to the people to help them in their difficult walk, this walk of Faith.
The priest must really be like a leader in this walk with the faithful. Together they will seek the ways of the Lord, to offer testimonies in this world that is losing its spiritual values. So I hope that this year will give a better drive to all priests in the world, to bear witness to Jesus Christ in the world.

Father Pios Affas: “the priesthood is first a service” (Photo ACN)

Q.: What are your hopes for the future of Iraq?

A.: The great hope is the peace, security and stability of the country for all citizens, and of course for the Christians, because it is really a shame that they are constrained to leave. It is a loss.
When there was the situation with Christians having had to leave Mosul (murders and death threats last October, forcing close to 10,000 Christians to flee the city), there was a declaration from the bishops of Mosul to say that we cannot at all renounce this [Christian] presence that is important to us. We have lived for centuries with our Muslim brothers; we absolutely do not want this presence to be hidden. I very much hope that those who stay will continue to bear witness to the presence of Christ in this country.
This problem of the Christians in Mosul has also had a very positive effect, because the Muslims themselves have strongly valued our presence. In the mosques, they declared: “We are with our Christian brothers, they are natives of the country, they are authentic citizens of Iraq and therefore we want to always have them with us to build up this country together.” That is hope that there are no obstacles or hindrances to the very important conviviality in the country.

To help the work of the Church in Iraq please contact the Australian office of ACN on (02) 9679-1929. e-mail: info@aidtochurch.org or write to Aid to the Church in Need PO Box 6245 Blacktown DC NSW 2148. Web: www.aidtochurch.org