Lebanon: alongside the Franciscans to support Iraqi Christians

Giacomo Pizzi21 January 2015

[From Custodia.org] The Custody of the Holy Land is present in Lebanon. Being active in several towns and villages, it has recently been requested by a number of Iraqi families from Qaraqosh, refugees in the country of the Cedar. Towards the Franciscan parish of Deir Mimas, at the extreme south of Lebanon; this is the place where Father Toufic decided to help these families.

In the beginning of this winter, the number of kilometres covered by Father Toufic’s car increased. It is the first day of the week and as usual, Father Toufic has two Masses to celebrate: the first takes place at 8 h 30 in the coastal city of Tyre; the second at 11 am in the remote mountains of Deir Mimas. The Custody of the Holy Land has been present for over sixty years with a church and a convent. There is no time to lose; the faithful are waiting and especially the Christian families from Qaraqosh in Iraq who have recently arrived to the parish.

In the last few weeks and after leaving parents, jobs and property, they found sanctuary in Deir Mimas, a perched nest 90 kms away from Beirut. Father Toufic (who is in charge of the Latin parish), and the entire Christian village of 400 souls welcomed the refugees materially and morally. “What else could have been done?” asks one of the parishioners after Mass. “Every day we hear about the situation of the Iraqi people and especially about Christians who have fled, threatened by the ISIS. So when we were told “Christian families from Qaraqosh will seek refuge at your place tomorrow”, we organized ourselves.” The simplicity of words and spontaneous sympathy of Deir Mimas villagers are perplexing, especially considering the demographic and economic pressure posed on Lebanon by Syrian refugees (1.6 million), Palestinians (300,000) and Iraqis already present (9,000).

But how to accommodate deprived families and send their children to school? The people of Deir Mimas are far from being rentiers. The large majority are olives producers or employees in the army of UNIFIL – the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. The economy of southern Lebanon has been greatly weakened by successive wars against Israel, the most recent in 2006. But we were not counting with the inventiveness of Father Toufic, Lebanese Franciscan and head of the convent of Beirut. He explains: “For some of the inhabitants, Deir Mimas is only a summer cottage, the rest of the year they prefer the milder climate of Beirut. We asked them if they were willing to rent their homes at low prices to accommodate these families.”And we are witnessing an ecumenism of mutual aid: the Custody of the Holy Land is currently taking at its expense the rents of seven available apartments and the Greek Orthodox parish filled the fuel tank for the winter. The people give clothing and food. Lena Ghazzi, the only woman elected to the municipal council of the city is struggling in the village for food distribution, and for contacting a NGO capable of assuming the costs of health, transport, translation … She takes us to meet one of the families. Father Toufic arrives and children come running. In a few weeks Father Toufic became a relative for them.

Najlaa (about 30) is the mother of three children who never leave her: Rania, her eldest daughter is 10 years old; meanwhile David had his 8 years old birthday the day he arrived to the village; the youngest, Nour, is not even 4. Their story? Unfortunately, similar to those of many families from Qaraqosh, that used to be the largest Christian city in Iraq. On August 7th, 2014, and after weeks of anguish and resistance the city fell into the hands of the Islamists. Thus, families had no other choice but to escape. Their first destination was Turkey: “There was the language barrier; we speak Aramaic and Arabic but not Turkish. And Christians are not welcome so we had to hide away for forty days, we did not come out, we spoke to no one,” says the young mother glancing at her children and the deep silence of them leaves no doubt. Between migration, poverty and lawlessness, they know that life will never be the same again. Najla and her husband had a comfortable life and even a car; he was a teacher. The eldest daughter Rania says that she misses her house but also her friends. She would like to go to school, learn English, “but I like Lebanon,” says smiling.

Nourishing the hope

On Sunday morning, the refugees come to hear the sermons of Father Toufic. Though followers of the Eastern Rite these families are Catholic, profess the same faith in Jesus Christ and receive communion with the same Eucharist. There is no Syriac Catholic parish in the village, so the families push the door of the most welcoming church. Father Toufic emphasizes that “Pope Francis continues to invite the Church to move closer to his Catholic brothers of the East and now they need us”. So Christmas was joyfully celebrated and a great meal with distribution of gifts for the children was organized. Recreational activities for young people and spiritual animation are being prepared for the coming year. Indeed, the Franciscan parish has a large meeting room and a sports court: “At least a few hours every Saturday would be fine for the beginning” hope the tireless Franciscan. “These families have lost almost everything, we should not leave adrift their Christian hope, we need to nourish it,” he says. Father Toufic is not a Syriac priest and has no ambition to become one: “I am Latin Catholic and I am delighted that some brothers of another rite may discover how we live our faith even if they are just passing by. We need to enrich ourselves with this meeting. “Under the protection of St Mamas, martyr of the third century who gave the town its name, these Iraqi families came to hand the uncertainty of their fate, “Here we almost feel like being at home because people look at us with kindness” concludes Najla.

A bus to go to school

Isolated in Deir Mimas, these 8 Iraqi families and especially the 19 young people composing them need to be integrated to the Lebanese society. If children have been enrolled in the nearby schools of Klayaa, they cannot get there given the lack of resources to pay for school transportation. “For these 19 young, a minibus, 5 times a week for the next 6 months would only cost1500 euros” says Father Toufic. The children may not only learn but they could especially go out from their homes to change ideas and play with other children.

Emilie Rey, for www.custodia.org

Association pro Terra Sancta, thank to support of many friends, has sent contributions and wants to keep on supporting the Franciscan presence in Lebanon: because the history of Christians in the Middle East is part of our roots and our culture. We seek to embrace persecuted Christians, their sufferings and anxieties, sharing the pain of people who have lost everything.

You too can provide practical support to the mission of the Franciscans in Lebanon, and keep alive the hope among the Christian of the Middle East!