(April, 2017) It’s Holy Week in Iraq, and I met with the Priest of the Syriac Catholic Church in Basra. As he takes me to see their sanctuary, I ask a pretty basic question:
“So, does your congregation have any special celebrations that you do this week?”
The priest responded with a shrug: “Sure, but few people ever attend.”
His discouragement makes sense. Christians made up 60% of Basra’s population in the 1970s, but now there is only a few hundred. Droves of them would leave during each of the three recent Iraqi wars, which hit Basra the hardest, and they continue to leave even though Basra, largely Shia, faces little threat from ISIS/Da3sh. It’s difficult being a religious minority in Iraq.
“We feel persecuted by the Muslims,” the priest says. Women are sometimes pressured to wear the hijab in public. Liquor store owners receive death threats. The public Holy Week processions in the street stopped decades ago. Keeping a low profile is encouraged.
The priest continues to share his pain: “The people here are suffering, persecuted, and the Church can’t protect them. We can’t tell them not to leave.” He shrugs again. Pain and loss. There is nothing I can do, except say “I’m sorry.”
As we leave the sanctuary, there is an elaborate shrine to Mary that was constructed just outside. I can tell by the recently-lit candles that it is well-used.
“Yes, we built that so the Muslims can come to pray,” the priest says. “They revere Mary like we do, but many of them will not go inside a Church. So we have it outside.”
Holy Week, remembering the way of Jesus: even in suffering, choosing to serve and surrender self.