Visit to Iraq brings local seminarians closer to their culture, faith
By Paul Natinsky and Vanessa Denha Garmo
It is said that to truly understand someone, you have to walk a mile in his shoes. That is exactly what four Chaldean seminarians did this summer on their trip to Iraq. On one day, they walked nine miles in 100-degree weather at the edge of a war zone.
Seminarians Deacon Fadie Gorgies, Deacon John Jaddou, Perrin Atisha and Rodney Abasso spent nearly a month in Northern Iraq, Kurdistan visiting displaced Christians and engaging in the life of the community at all levels.
Their trip is a vital part of their formation as future Chaldean priests immersing themselves in Chaldean culture in their native homeland. This is the second year the Chaldean Church in Detroit has sent seminarians such as Deacon Fadie to Iraq and Father Patrick Setto who first embraced the opportunity last year while still a seminarian.
“We are so blessed in America” said Perrin Atisha. “There are so many blessings that build our faith and you don’t realize that until you go to a place like Iraq and see what others are going through.”
There are many opportunities in America like bible study, theology classes and workshops that are not available in Iraq. “The faith is so very alive in Iraq, yet they don’t have the same tools we have in America to learn and practice the faith,” noted Atisha. “Even if they have what we have, they are not widely attended because they are being persecuted in Iraq. Things are so available to us here but we learned that God works everywhere. He is working in Iraq even with the limited resources.”
After their tip, the seminarians had a deeper understanding of the persecution going on in the U.S. “We may not be physically persecuted as they are in Iraq,” said Atisha, “but there is a spiritual persecution with everything going on in society and the beliefs of the world creeping into our Catholic Faith. We need to ask ourselves if we are going to stick to our faith like the people in Iraq have been doing or are we going to compromise because of what the world wants us to do?”
The men spent more than a month out of the country, first visiting the Chaldean community in the Republic of Georgia and their priest Father Benny Bethyadgar.
After being dazzled by the community and the Chaldean Church in Tbilisi, Georgia, the seminarians departed for a 26-day mission in Iraq. They spent two weeks in Ankawa, one week in Alqosh, and four days in Dohuk.
The group spent time in the well-developed town of Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil. Their stay in Ankawa included living and participating in seminary life and teaching classes to high school students at Mar Qardakh School.
“The experience made us want to serve our people more,” said Atisha. “There is so much work needed not only in Iraq but in our own Diocese in America. It is not just physical work. It is spiritual work. We are not only dealing with people, we are dealing with souls.”
As they continued to teach, the seminarians discovered a strong faith “instilled in the culture” and “fertile minds” that were eager to embrace the teachings of the church. It was this experience that Deacon John said moved him the most during the trip. “The kids started falling in love with Jesus,” said Deacon John about his teaching experience.
Three years ago, ISIS fighters ravaged villages from Mosul north in their conquest and desecration of Iraq. Christian villages were hit very hard, losing homes, churches and lives. Still, the communities remained bonded together, said Rodney. When the seminarians arrived in Alqosh, they were given an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the persecuted. It just so happened that when the men arrived in Alqosh, the next morning was a memorial walk on the road from Alqosh to Teleskoof.
The seminarian’s nine-mile trek began in Alqosh. The four young men headed south to the war-torn village of Teleskoof, where they participated in celebration of the first mass since the invasion of ISIS three years ago.
For Rodney, the journey, retracing the steps that terrified villagers took fleeing gunfire and destruction, and seeing the destruction left by ISIS, challenged his sense of forgiveness. But once he saw how the community retained its faith and lived without resentment, he felt inspired by the strength of their faith amidst adversity. Perrin was also deeply affected by what he saw at Teleskoof. “It was humbling, eye opening,” he said upon viewing the destroyed homes and smashed church statues.
The seminarians witnessed firsthand the aftermath of evil and war. The men first encountered this in Qaramlesh as they walked around the village with Father Thabet, the parish priest of Qaramlesh. Many Chaldeans in the Metro Detroit community saw this destruction through a Vlog that was created by the men at vlog.chaldeanchurch.com.
Rodney recounts that although they witnessed the aftermath of evil, “there was much good that we witnessed too. We saw the joy and love on the face of a people united in faith. Love remained. The love of Christ was still present in the community and it was Christ and His love that brought the people through their pain and suffering. It was the love of Christ that united us to them; and ultimately love remained victorious.”
The trip to Iraq was an excellent experience for the men as they prepare to be Chaldean priests. Perrin Atisha noted “Our mission to Iraq helped me realize how blessed I am. In America, we grow up with everything and can forget that not everyone is as fortunate.”
It was Deacon Fadie who had been instrumental in planning the trip. He was a knowledgeable guide for the other men as he speaks Chaldean, Arabic and Kurdish, in addition to English, and is very familiar with the Iraqi geography and culture. The men all hope these trips will continue if the political situation lends itself.
“The destroyed churches were very humbling and eye opening,” said Atisha. “It really made us angry at first. We saw our churches desecrated and statues smashed. We saw the tabernacles stolen. After that, the “ah-ha” moment was seeing the happiness with the displaced Christians in the refugee camps. They built temporary chapels there and their faith is alive. If what happened to them, happened to us, I think many of us would doubt God.”
It was witnessing the forgiveness that really moved the seminarians. “If they can forgive ISIS, how can we not?” asked Atisha. “When we don’t forgive others, we will lose our faith. The reason the faith is so alive in Iraq is because they forgave their enemies.”