Iraqi Catholics defy ISIS with Stations of the Cross

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by Inés San Martín

ROME — Defying threats related to the rise of ISIS, Baghdad’s small Catholic community is gathering for the Stations of the Cross each Friday this Lent, albeit under the protection of soldiers guarding the street where their cathedral is located.

The Stations of the Cross is a traditional form of Catholic prayer marking the Jerusalem path followed by Jesus from his arrest to his crucifixion. According to the Rev. Luis Montes, an Argentinian priest who ministers to the small flock in Baghdad, it’s an especially appropriate observance in today’s Middle East.

“The Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ … [is] what Muslim extremism hates the most,” Montes said in an e-mail interview with Crux from Baghdad.

Each Friday afternoon during Lent, starting last week and repeated Friday, Catholic children in Baghdad carry a cross from their school to the Latin-rite Cathedral of St. Joseph to begin the ritual. Montes then celebrates Mass.

During the presentation of gifts at the Mass, one of the children carries a folder containing thousands of prayer intentions, submitted to the cathedral from around the world via the web, which is updated weekly.

“We are confident that God will hear these little [ones], and will bless all who came to him for help,” reads a Facebook post published by Montes Feb. 22.

The initiative is just the latest for Montes, a priest of the Argentina-based Institute of the Incarnate Word who has lived and worked in the Middle East since 1996.

Montes, who’s been in Iraq since 2010, said publicly displaying the cross in Baghdad doesn’t place Christians in any more risk than they already are when simply inside the church or even staying in their homes.

“We’d never go through with it if it meant endangering the faithful even more,” he said.

The situation for Christians in Iraq is especially difficult, Montes said, as a result of power struggles between the main Islamic groups, the Sunni and Shi’a branches.

“It’s produced a bloodbath amongst them, but also on Christians, who were completely unprotected,” he said. “Anyone could kill [a Christian] without facing any consequence.”

Since the end of the war, Iraq has endured an average of 20 terrorist attacks a day, with many taking place in Baghdad. In response, the Institute of the Incarnate Word created a blog entitled “Friends of Iraq.”

It offers a window into what writers describe as the “unspeakable suffering” of the local Christian population and its continuing exodus, driven by extremism and motivated by the hopes of a brighter future.

Before the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq had an estimated Christian population of 1.5 million. Today only around 300,000 are left, the majority living as refugees in Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region.

Montes expressed pessimism about the short-term prospects for a solution to the conflict, saying “there’s no will to implement long-term actions.”

“There are too many selfish interests involved,” he said. “Therefore, only partial, wholly inadequate and sometimes even counterproductive measures are implemented.”

Montes described the US-led airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria as one of these “inadequate” measures.

He reiterated appeals from Pope Francis for the United Nations to take a mediating role. He also called for sanctions on those who financially support ISIS and other terrorist groups, and for an urgent and massive humanitarian action to help the millions of refugees.

Speaking about what average citizens can do to help, Montes said the most powerful form of aid is prayer, which is “highly needed.” He said his order is planning to remain in Iraq as long as there are Catholics to serve, and the Friends of Iraq are collecting prayer intentions on their Facebook page and the blog. He also suggested raising consciousness and providing financial aid through international Catholic charities, such as Caritas or Aid to the Church in Need.

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