Cardinal Timothy Dolan remembered the anguish in the voice of a Christian martyr’s mother. The Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, informally called Iraqi Kurdistan, is a haven for many such mothers, whose tears watered the day’s march from Mosul and their ancestral home, the Nineveh Plain.
“They taunted me as they were murdering my son; because they said, ‘She is a Christian; she must forgive us,’” Cardinal Dolan recounted, as the mother held before him the picture of her beloved son. When militants from the Islamic State group, known as Daesh by its foes, overran Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in June 2014, more than 110,000 Christian inhabitants of northern Iraq — Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, but all the descendants of ancient Nineveh — literally walked away from all of their earthly possessions rather than give up their faith. As Cardinal Dolan and a delegation of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) saw during a trip to the region earlier this month, some even gave up their lives.
In this 14 April interview with the Register, Cardinal Dolan speaks about his visit with Christian refugees, their powerful witness of faith, love and sacrifice, and American Christians’ duty to support vigorously the suffering Christians who have given all — families that have given the Church martyrs — to confess Jesus Christ as Lord.
When you went to Iraqi Kurdistan to visit the Church there, what did you see?
What I saw was this blend of terrible sadness, and yet amazing charity and hope. Sadness, because these people who had come from Mosul or the plains of Nineveh — their families go back centuries and centuries, some to the time of St. Thomas the Apostle — had to abandon their homes in a couple of hours’ notice and couldn’t bring anything. They brought their children, obviously, and they brought their elders. The priests and nuns accompanied them on the [10-hour] walk, and they made it safely there. All these people want to do is go back home.
What’s hopeful is that they still have an extraordinarily vivid faith — their resilience is nothing less than profound. What’s moving as well is the remarkable charity and hospitality with which the Christians of Kurdistan have welcomed them.
You and the CNEWA delegation visited with the displaced Christians and other refugees in Erbil and Dohuk. What was it like?
So, we toured a number of camps. There would be thousands of these people in the refugee camps, which are actually rather secure and safe and where the local Christians have opened up schools, medical dispensaries and pharmacies. The people there will be the first to say that they are well taken care of — so, thanks be to God — because of a lot of international Christian support, and, yes, some support from the Kurdistan government and the Iraqi government.
At least they have these secure makeshift caravans, which we would call “trailers,” to live in. And the camp seems to be secure, and their needs and health and food are taken care of, as well as the education of their children. So the charity that has been shown them is remarkable.