You Will Be My Witnesses: Christian Testimony from Syria and Iraq

Two missionaries from our religious family, Fr. Luis Montes, IVE, a missionary in Iraq and Sr. M. Guadalupe, a missionary in Syria, visited the Far East for a series of Conferences in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Fr. Montes and Sr. Guadalupe presented 2 conferences in the Cathedral of San Sebastian, Lipa (above) and one in the parish of St. John in Tanauan, attended by numerous youth and high school, college and university students.

Fr. Montes and Sr. M. Guadalupe in Taiwan.

Fr. Luis Montes, IVE, has spent 20 years evangelizing in the Middle East, and 6 of those years were spent in Iraq. Thus, he lived the conflict first-hand from Baghdad. Fr. Luis left Baghdad, after 5 years of apostolic work in this city, where he was pastor the Cathedral parish. He worked with the refugees at Camp Mary, spiritually attended to the Filipino community in the Green Zone, and ministered to other groups of Catholics in various languages. He now works in northern Iraq, as the Latin Vicar for Iraqi Kurdistan.

Fr. Montes began his testimony by explaining that much of the news propagated in the Western media not only contain inaccuracies and misleading information, but culpable omissions about the actual situation on the ground where numerous Christians are refugees in their own countries and the Christian population, our brothers and sisters in Christ who, for the testimony of Jesus, have lost everything.

Fr. Montes told of the heroic witness of this martyred people who, when ISIS invaded, were betrayed by their own neighbours who pointed them and their houses out as Christian. Their houses were then marked by the Arabic character, ن (Nun), or N. Christians are called Nasrani or Nazarenes, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

The militants then gave them the choice of apostatizing, and becoming Muslim, paying the jizya tax which was so heavy as not to be a valid option, or leaving. All the Christians chose to preserve their faith and left everything, their homes, their belongings, houses, cars, jobs, their very lives. All their material possessions were left behind to preserve that pearl of great price, their faith in Jesus. After the expulsion of ISIS, they cannot return as their houses have been devastated and reduced to ruins and rubble.

A visceral hatred for Churches was manifested by the Muslim militants.

 

Fr. Montes in one of the devastated Churches recovered after the expulsion of ISIS militants. (left) Fr. Montes concelebrating a Syrian Catholic Rite liturgy in a newly liberated Church (right).

Fr. Montes touring the devastated Christian regions after the expulsion of ISIS. The hatred of the enemy of the Mother of God is apparent. These Muslims also have a particular dislike for the bell towers of Churches being taller than the minaret of the local mosque. The destruction can be seen across all the villages in the Nineveh Plain, Mosul and the formerly Christian Qaraqosh.

Fr. Montes reports that the Christians, now refuges in their own homeland, are willing to return to their homes, but they face the huge problem of the almost total destruction of their properties and also the fear and distrust they have because of the betrayal of their neighbours who identified them to the ISIS invaders. These and other factors have also led to the massive emigration of Christians leading to the depopulation of Christians in these historically Christian regions of the Middle East.

The Chaldean Catholic Church, an ancient Church using a form of Aramaic as it’s liturgical language, is in danger of being wiped out in its home territory.

The militants always have a special hatred for the Cross of Christ. The destruction of the Mar Behnam monastery which was blown up by ISIS showing the interior before the destruction. They defaced the icons and blew up the tomb of Mar Behnam, a local saint.

 

The devastated Churches after the ISIS were kicked out.

 

The next to offer testimony is Sr. M. Guadalupe.

Sr. M. Guadalupe meeting Pope Francis with Fr. Rodrigo Miranda, an IVE Missionary priest from Aleppo.

A missionary in the Middle East for 18 years, Sr. Guadalupe arrived in Syria in 2011, a few months before the war between the Islamic Terrorists and the Syrian Government began. She remained with the Christians there throughout the ISIS occupation of the city. She has given her testimony in various places including at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

She explained that Aleppo, the second city in Syria and one with a long Christian history, was a rich and prosperous city before the war, on par with many European cities, where the inhabitants enjoyed a high standard of living. During the ISIS occupation, these were reduced to daily bombings and having water and electricity only a few hours each week. She told of bombs going off at the residence for girls run by the sisters and how she herself had to run across the streets, always running, as they were targets for snipers.

And yet, the Churches, although prime targets, were always full. The response of the Christians was, “If we have to die, there’s no better place than in a Church!”

Life in Aleppo before the war devastated this ancient and important city. It’s previous prosperity made the conditions during the war much more difficult for the people forced to endure them.

The sisters working with children.

In her testimony, Sr. Guadalupe mentioned that as difficult as it was, life had to go on even during the ISIS occupation. Children had to go to school, but the farewells on leaving the house were particularly poignant as there’s no guarantee that it wouldn’t be a permanent parting and that this would be the very last time that the parents would see their children. She mentioned that they had coined a term, ‘raining’, to indicate the bombing and fighting that would occur and the residents would say to each other, “Where is it raining today?” and then plan their route accordingly. She said that she doesn’t recall a single day when it did not rain during her time in Aleppo. She remembers a child excitedly telling her that bullets flew through the window of the school bus on the way to school but on that day, no one had died. They had grown accustomed to living life dangerously.

The sisters run a House for female students studying at the university, and each of them had to have a bag packed with the most important documents and essentials, to be grabbed should the fighting or bombing approach the house and they had to immediately evacuate. On one such occasion, in addition to the bag, a girl grabbed some books and when scolded by the sister, she replied, “Well, if we don’t die today, I have an exam the following day so I need my books”.

 

Life goes on even during the occupation. The sisters run a home for girls and some of the students attended the University of Aleppo and here are the sisters with a graduate.

Aleppo now is a burnt-out shell of its former self, with the Churches being particular targets of the hatred of the Islamist militants.

This image, shared by Sr. Guadalupe, showing a smiling and cheerful congregation, has an interesting history. It was “raining” as usual but there was a sudden calm and since it was such a nice sunny day, the people decided to run out of the Church and take a photo before running back in again to take shelter. It looks like such a normal photo that you’d never have guessed that bombs were going off minutes before and after the image was taken. There’s just such joy in their faces.

Fr. Montes and Sr. Guadalupe also shared stories or triumph amidst tragedy, stories of Christian heroism and forgiveness.

“When it is easy to be a Christian, it’s difficult to be a Christian, but when it’s difficult to be a Christian, it’s easy to be a Christian”. This paradox is proven true. In fact, some Christians told them, with regards to the persecution, “We needed this. Before, we were so lukewarm and the faith was something trivial for us. Now, it has made us realize the value of our faith so much more”.

Among the stories of triumph include that of the mother of 2 victims slaughtered by ISIS in Egypt. When asked what she would do if she met the murderers in the street, she said: “I would invite them for tea and I would forgive them. How can I hate them for sending my sons into Heaven as martyrs?”

Fr. Montes shared a testimony about Christina, a child who was martyred by Muslim militants when they stormed the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation. This child comforted her mother with the words “Mother, if you love me, please do not be afraid” before being gunned down by militants who had just killed the priests in the sanctuary of the Church. The mother was also meant to be shot but the other bodies fell on her and she laid there, in silence for 4 hours, under the bodies and blood of the dead, including her daughter, until the militants left.

He shared how difficult it was for the mother to enter that Church again and how, after many years, and many many tears, she received a vision of comfort and healing from her daughter and is now at peace.

In many places, there’s so much worry about a wedding, but in war torn Syria, is back to the basics. All you need is a priest, the bride and the groom. A Church with a roof is optional.

They testified to the faith of many Christians who said “Let them come, let them shoot us, let them cut us and chop off our heads and kill us. That’s all that they can do. But they cannot force us to deny our faith.” They spoke of the pride in the mother who, at the response of her young son who had lived his whole childhood during the war when asked how it felt living like this “Well, everybody has to suffer something.”

A childhood lived in a war zone.

The wonderful testimony, so moving because it came from personal experience, concluded with a music video in Spanish called Soy Nazareno by Maxi Largi. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FP6zKkNt1FE In that video, you can see many of the images shared by the missionaries, made more poignant because now we could attach a name and a story behind the faces. Little crosses appear above some of the people in the video, indicating that they have already died.

At the beginning of the testimony, Fr. Montes and Sr. Guadalupe began by saying that this persecution, this genocide of Christians, is something that goes unreported by the mainstream Western media and thus, many Christians are unaware of the heroic martyrdom undergone by these people who even now are displaced, with nothing, having only that pearl of great price which is their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

They ended by saying that sometimes, we think of the martyrs of the early Christian centuries and how it would have been like to have been there, to aid them in their trials for the testimony of Our Lord. Well, those times are with us today and we though we cannot aid Sts. Lawrence or Cyprian or Peter or Paul, our Christian brothers and sisters who are still testifying today with their blood surely deserve our solidarity in prayer and any help that we can render them who have given up all for the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Blood flowing in the streets of the Syrian city of Douma.

 

A Christian, tied to a pole for every passer-by to hit, who died without denying her faith.

 

*Images courtesy of the FB pages of Fr. Luis Montes, Friends of Iraq, SOS Christians in Syria.

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