As he leaves Iraqi Kurdistan, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said what struck him most during the visit were the people’s faith and hope, despite violent persecution.
“These people from an earthly point of view don't have much, but my, oh my, their sense of resilience and hope were simply astounding,” Cardinal Dolan said in an interview with CNA.
“Do they mourn the past? Yes they do, but they’re about the present and they’re about the future, and that’s a sentiment that will never leave me.”
Cardinal Dolan is the Archbishop of New York and chair of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).
He was joined by Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, a CNEWA board member, for a three-day visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, where he toured projects aimed at helping refugees and met with families, Church leaders, priests and religious who were displaced as a result of the 2014 Islamic State attacks.
The trip included visits to the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and to the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk. It concluded with a Mass celebrated by Syriac-Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan, in which representatives of several other rites were present, including the Latin and Chaldean rites, as well as the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.
Both Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Murphy spoke to CNA in a sit-down interview on the last day of the trip to share their thoughts and reflections about what they had seen and experienced.
Below is CNA's full interview with Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Murphy:
What are your impressions after spending these days here in Iraq?
Cardinal Dolan: I would find my impression would be on both sides. First of all there’s an impression of sadness and sobriety in what these people have gone through. They’ve lost their homes, their homes that have been in their families for centuries, centuries and centuries, alright. They’ve lost a sense of security, they’ve lost in many ways a sense of stability that is so necessary for human existence. So there is an undeniable sense of sadness and somberness. But then I jump ahead to the other side of the spectrum to say that they haven’t lost their sense of hope. They haven’t lost their faith. We’ve heard people cry out in anguish, but they always have a sense of hope.
And I can't get over it.
I mean look, you were at the liturgy yesterday. You talk about joyful, reverent, grateful prayer and praise, trusting in God. Of all people you’d think they would be almost dour in Mass. You’d wonder if some of them would be tempted not to come anymore because they were so crushed. We have our parishes at home for Sunday Mass where sometimes there's a sense of heaviness and people don’t seem interested, and we’ve got prosperity, we’ve got peace, we’ve got stability. These people from an earthly point of view don’t have much, but my oh my, their sense of resilience and hope were simply astounding. And I see it in the priests, I see it in the sisters, I see it in the lay leaders, I see it in my brother bishops. Do they mourn the past? Yes they do, but they’re about the present and they’re about the future, and that’s a sentiment that will never leave me.
Is there a specific moment that was particularly moving for you?
Cardinal Dolan: Bishop Murphy and I have shared a number of them, and when we process this it’s amazing that we both have felt the same thing. One would be the desire of people just to go back home. Just to go back home. They’re not saying ‘take us to America.’ They’re saying ‘we just want to go back home, can you help us get back home?’ And number two, the second I think, would be that sense of hope and promise. They’re so resilient that their kind of making the best of what they’ve got. They have this trust in God and they say ‘we wanna go back home, we don’t know how long we’re going to be in exile, but let’s make the best of it. Let’s tend to the basics of faith, education, healthcare, food, shelter, protecting our kids. That’s basic civilization, that’s basic solidarity and they’re doing it magnificently.
Yesterday Bishop Wardona said that they are very grateful for your visit, but wished that it had come sooner and that the United States was doing more to help. Do you have a response to his comments about your visit, and that maybe the U.S. should have acted quicker and sooner? (Editor’s note: Bishop Shlemom Wardona is one of three auxiliary bishops in Iraq serving under Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako).
Cardinal Dolan: We say: so do we. We wish we could have come sooner too, and we certainly want to do more. That’s one of the things we’ve said from the beginning, that the purpose of our visit is to learn. We don’t come here as saviors, we don’t come here as know-it-alls, we don’t come here as experts. We really came to listen and learn so we can bring that back home, and we need to. We need to encourage our people to more fervent and deeper prayer, we they’re already doing very well. We need to be unafraid to ask our people to be more generous to the agencies like CNEWA, like Aid to the Church in Need, like the Knights of Malta, like Catholic Relief Services, who are doing very well here for these people and whose work is deeply appreciated. And we need to do more advocacy. We really do, and that’s what we learned. Now we can come back with a little bit more credibility, because we’ve been there. Bishop Murphy said earlier we’re not just geography now, we’re not just talking about them or those people. We’ve met them, we’ve hugged them, we’ve listened to them, we’ve entered their cabanas, their little trailers where they’re living. They become part of us. It’s such a vivid reminder of the family of the Church, the mystical body of Christ.
I know it’s still early, but do you have an idea of what this advocacy will look like once you guys are back?
Cardinal Dolan: I think there’s probably going to be much more…Bishop Murphy and I have said that we’ve already got homilies for about six months, we’ve got blogs for about six months, we’ve got columns we’re going to write. And we just need to talk to our people about it, we’ve got to remind them of it. That’s what it means to be Catholic. We’re not congregationalists, we’re Catholic. The sense of the Church is always a bit beyond us, and we have a solicitude for the Church universal and this is a particularly acute area where that solicitude needs to be exercised. So I think you’re going to hear us. It’s going to color everything we say and do in the future.
As a journalist I sometimes find that people read the news and move on. How can we convince people to continue to be interested and invested in what’s happening here?
Bishop Murphy: One of the things is [that] I’ve been doing blogs each day. They’re not as long as a column, but you get them out. Everybody who’s on that website will see this regularly. Another thing we did was last year, we announced that in the middle of the summer, July-August, that weekend would be Middle East weekend. So we did what we Catholics do and took up another collection (laughs). But we were able to get some more money out of that, and I think we just need to take opportunities like that and call the attention of people to it. Then some people respond and you’ll find some groups will respond. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said: you start it with one, then another, then a third and fourth, and before you know it you have a movement. And I think we should really be encouraging those who catch on to this. To start to do some things on their own that would be helpful. We can’t be the only voice, for example, in Washington. We can be a voice, but we’re just the bishops. Take the decision on Christian genocide. What made the difference there? It wasn’t the fact that the names of x-amount of bishops were there, it was the fact that all of the sudden, people picked up on it. I’m not saying that’s changing things radically, but it’s another force for good.
Cardinal Dolan: Let me mention this. We’ve got a lot of Catholic business leaders who would do a lot of business in this area of the world, and when I meet with them, when they tell me, ‘oh, I’m going to Saudi Arabia,’ or ‘I’m going to Iraq’ or ‘I’m going to Iran,’ or ‘I’m going to Kurdistan as part of some business ventures,’ I will often say to them: ‘are you going to meet with prominent leaders and government officials?’ — ‘Oh, yes.’ — ‘Are you going to mention to them the persecuted Christians?’ — ‘Well I hadn’t thought of that. That’s not really my responsibility, I don’t know if I’m an expert there.’ I’ll say to them: ‘Let me ask you this. If one of your Jewish partners were going to a country where there’s a persecution of Jews, would your Jewish partner bring that up to government leaders?’ And they’ll say ‘probably so.’ And I said when are we going to start doing that? When are we going to encourage our lay people? Sometimes they have a lot more clout that we bishops do. They expect us, fat, balding bishops, to go home and start talking about this. We’ve got to advocate with our people.
Bishop Murphy: I’ll give you an example of that. I spent two years on the International Commission for Religious Freedom. And one of our jobs was to study every time, whoever was the president at that time, went to a foreign country, someone from the White House would call us and say for example, ‘the President’s going to China. What do you have by way of names of people, what do you have about issues?’ And he would bring those things with him and literally take them out of his pocket, and when he’d come back we’d get a little report from the president saying ‘I did talk with the president of China about those things you gave me.’ So there are different ways this can happen, but what I think what the cardinal suggests is it’s something we need to be more acute about.
Cardinal Dolan: You know when I had brother bishops from India at my house, they told me that when President Obama went to India last summer they deeply appreciated the fact that he spoke publicly about the persecution of religious minorities, especially the Christians. Now Lord knows I’ve done my share of criticism of President Obama, as we bishops have with any and all of our presidents. We’d like to compliment them when they do good, we criticize them when they don’t, but my brother bishops say ‘that meant the world to us.’ So it’s that kind of advocacy that we need with our political leaders, but let’s not forget the business leaders, and let’s not forget the grassroots people who can make this work.