Back in 2008, before my ordination to priesthood, I studied French at L’Institut Catholique in Paris, France as part of the requirement for obtaining a licentiate from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. While I was studying in Paris, I met seminarians and priests from around the world.
In particular, I befriended a young man, Asal Salam-Kaiser, a seminarian from Baghdad, Iraq, who was sent by his bishop to study in Europe just like me. We had a lot in common but we knew we both came from different worlds.
During my many conversations with Asal, I learned of the struggles he and his people underwent in order to live their Catholic faith each day. In 2003, he witnessed firsthand the U.S. invasion of Baghdad and overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Since that event, Iraq has never been the same. As horrible a dictator as Saddam Hussein may have been, his government at least upheld civil stability and tolerance for the Christian minority in a predominately Muslim nation. After our invasion disturbed Iraq’s infrastructure, chaos and lawlessness have ensued. Radical factions of Islam are using the chaos as an opportunity to gain power and rule in the country.
Asal told me of a harsh persecution against Christians that began after the fall of Baghdad. More than half the Iraqi Christians fled the country, thousands have been killed, and more than 60 churches and monasteries were bombed. Bishops, priests and lay people that Asal knew personally underwent torture and death.
One day, Asal himself was kidnapped with a knife to his neck because he was a seminarian. He told me he was grateful to be alive but he is ready to lay down his life for the Catholic faith if that is God’s will. After that experience, his bishop sent him to continue his studies in Europe and he was ordained in 2009 at age 26. I’ve kept in touch with Father Asal via Internet and we often share news about our experience as young priests.
Recently, I received very disturbing news.
On Oct. 31, a deadly attack rocked the Catholic community of Baghdad. It received some attention in our news, but it was mostly eclipsed by our elections. Father Asal posted to his friends on the Internet that a whole parish, Our Lady of Salvation Church, in his hometown of Baghdad, came under siege during their celebration of evening Mass. His brother priests were the first targets of the Muslim extremists. Father Wassim Sabih, age 27, and Father Thaer Saad Abdal, age 32, were shot and killed immediately. A third priest, Father Rafael Alkotaily was critically wounded. The terrorists fired guns and set off explosives, killing over 60 parishioners and wounding many others.
At the time of these recent attacks, Father Asal was completing his studies in Europe, but his family was still in Iraq. His immediate family includes his mother and father, his older sister who is married and recently had a baby, and his youngest sister.
Distressed and concerned for their welfare, Father Asal departed Europe and flew home at once. A week later, on Tuesday evening, Nov. 9, while he was still visiting Baghdad, Father Asal recounted live on the Internet that a new wave of attacks was unfolding all around him. Extremists were throwing grenades and attacking the homes of Christian families who were still mourning. They killed six more Catholics and injured many more.
Luckily, Father Asal and his immediate family were protected, but most of his family members had to leave their home in Baghdad and became refugees in Northern Iraq. Only his father remains in Baghdad. They, like many others, are desperately seeking asylum and compassion from our international community for a new home outside of Iraq.
I do not write this article to spark a political debate or to raise issues about past decisions or actions by our nation. What’s done is done and remains a sad chapter of our history. A whole people and sister church faces extermination as an unintended consequence of a war initiated by our nation. We cannot deny this unfortunate fact.
I tell this story for my brothers and sisters, American Catholics, to ask all of us, “How do we respond right now, in the present?”
As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, we should be aware of the plight and hardships of others. Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock for religious freedom in 1621 and some Christians in the world wish they had the same opportunity to come to America today.
Of course, we can pray for the Iraqis: this is a given. Father Asal himself has resolved to return to his diocese of Baghdad when he completes his studies this year. He needs the courage and strength of the Holy Spirit to minister under these trying conditions in the near future. However, is there any way we can go the extra mile to help Father Asal’s family and friends? We know from history that American Jews were instrumental in assisting their suffering brothers and sisters during and after the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, many of us take our religious freedom for granted and complain about the smallest inconveniences that we face. We might even be prone to argue about our liturgical preferences. Meanwhile, we have fellow Catholics in the world who are suffering immensely: laying down their lives and losing everything they hold dear, even a place to call home.
Personally knowing a young priest like Father Asal and hearing his eyewitness account of persecution has been humbling for me and has opened my mind as an American Catholic priest. My hope and prayer is that this real life witness I am sharing will touch the hearts of my brothers and sisters here in America and spark our creativity in finding concrete ways to help our extended family in the faith.
Father John Rossi was ordained for the Camden Diocese on May 16, 2009, and currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Charles Borromeo, Sicklerville.