Rome, Italy, Apr 8, 2015 / 23:23 pm
Roni Marzina Momica has seen it all: a victim of a 2010 bus attack and among those forced to leave his home when ISIS invaded last year, he says Iraq's "shattered" Christians need help.
"Christians are shattered like crystal glass all over. (From) being a culture who started the Bible's Old Testament to a people with no land, no work, no schools, no hospitals…nothing!" Momica told CNA April 4. "Where is the global Christian community?"
Momica is a Syriac Catholic seminarian, currently studying in his final year of theology at the Al-Sharfa Seminary in Harissa, Lebanon.
He formerly studied at St Ephraim's seminary in the mainly Christian city of Qaraqosh, which is now under the control of ISIS. He left when the militants attacked the city last August, driving out inhabitants who didn't meet their demands to convert to Islam, pay a hefty tax or face death.
Invited by an acquaintance to spend part of Holy Week and Easter in Rome, the seminarian was in the city just two days, during which he visited Iraqi religious sisters who have a convent in Rome, and participated in Good Friday's Way of the Cross service with Pope Francis.
Momica told CNA that he comes from an area in Iraq that has "seen the worst forms of persecution."
While targeted attacks on Christians by extremists have not been uncommon in Iraq, the situation took a ghastly turn for the worst last summer, when the Islamic State, or ISIS, unleashed a bloody campaign in Northern Iraq.
Since then, ISIS has established a caliphate and carried out mass persecutions of minority populations, primarily Christians and Yazidis. They have also published videos showing the beheading of foreign hostages as a warning to countries that have militarily intervened.
Before being forced to leave Qaraqosh last August, Momica and his sister were among the victims wounded in the 2010 bombing of buses transporting mainly Christian college students from the Plains of Nineveh to the University of Mosul, where they were enrolled in classes.
Momica recalled that there were 25 buses carrying an overall total of 1500 students "seeking education, a simple right for human beings," when two bombs exploded as they passed through a joint checkpoint manned by American, Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers.
The details of the event "will be forever engraved in my mind," he said, noting that part of his face was deformed by the explosion, which wounded close to 100 students and left the owner of a nearby vehicle repair shop dead.
The seminarian underwent nine surgeries just to reconstruct his nose. His sister's injuries were "severe," he said, but less serious than his own.
"The minute of the explosion, one would really feel that the world was coming to an end…a roller coaster of fear, of death, of a bottomless pit," he recalled. "The only word that we could utter was, 'Oh Mother Mary, help us!'"
Attacks and bombings continued to take place after the bus incident, Momica noted, drawing specific attention to an attack on a church in Baghdad, which left both priests and most of the congregation dead.
The blood of the "innocent Christians" who died during the church attack "was proof of love for our Lord Jesus, who Himself was persecuted and left to die on the Cross for no other reason than being clean, honest and loving. This is who we (Christians) are," the seminarian explained.
However, despite the severity and frequency of attacks against Christians in Iraq, Momica said the worst persecution hit when ISIS began their siege last summer, starting in Mosul.
The Christians of Mosul, who had "no intention" of denying Jesus or paying the terrorists the tax they demanded, then fled to Qaraqosh, which was formerly known as the "Christian capital" of Iraq.
Once ISIS attacked Qaraqosh itself August 6 in the middle of the night, the men joined with the Kurdish army, known as the "Peshmerga," in trying to fight off the well-armed extremists "with any means they had," which were mostly "primitive" weapons.
As the battle in Qaraqosh unfolded, ISIS militants bombed houses, with one rocket landing in a house and killing two children, 4 and 9 years old, the seminarian recalled, adding that three other children were wounded while standing in front of their homes, and a 30-year-old woman was also killed.
While the former archbishop of the Qaraqosh first urged Christians to stay and fight, he and the city's priests "found it wiser to leave" as the night went on and ISIS advanced to "the gates" of the city.
"Displacement began. Believe me it was a bad experience. Means of transportation were not available, so most people had to escape on foot, walking on long, rocky, insect infested roads with babies and children," he recounted.
Momica said that with no food, water or protection from the heat, Christians were fed "with the food of belief, quenched with the love of God and dressed with the arms of Jesus."
When a large chunk of the 100,000 people who fled Qaraqosh arrived in the Iraqi city of Erbil that night, "the struggle for survival began" as the displaced were left to sleep on the streets, sidewalks, in public parks and in churches since no house would open its doors to them, he recalled.
All this was "only the beginning," Momica said, explaining that people have been forced to stay in caravans, refugee compounds or half-constructed buildings with no doors or windows for protection.
His own family was among those fleeing that night, including his mother and his brother's two small children, one of whom was just six days old at the time.
Momica told CNA that he was in Spain at the time of the attack, but got a phone call from his family saying they had tried to pile eight people into his brother's small car to leave, but turned back out of fear the young baby would die due to the extreme heat.
After waiting for several hours, the seminarian said he finally convinced his family to take the risk and leave. So they piled back into the car and went to Erbil, where they stayed with other families in a church for a while before finding a small house to rent, where they currently live.
After returning from Spain he joined his family in Erbil for one month, where he worked 18 hours a day helping refugees, many of whom became ill due to the heat, before being asked by his bishop to go to Lebanon.
The seminarian said that when his bishop initially asked him, he didn't want to go, and told the bishop he would prefer to stay and help the refugees. However, after receiving his bishop's instruction to finish his studies in the seminary, he consented and left Erbil in September.
In addition to Rome, Momica also traveled to Geneva, Madrid, Cordova and France to speak about the situation of Christians in Iraq after being invited by a woman his bishop knows in Cordova.
He is currently visiting his family in Erbil, and will return to Lebanon when classes resume after the Easter holiday.
In reference to the situation of Iraq's Christians, Momica said that "a culture of God's word, a people of Jesus, (have been) left in the cold to meet a dark destiny," and called on the international community to intervene.
Pope Francis also drew attention to the plight of Christians persecuted worldwide yesterday in his first Easter Regia Coeli address, which is a Marian prayer traditionally recited during the liturgical Easter season.
Speaking to the Shalom Community, which sponsored a relay to show solidarity with and raise awareness of persecuted Christians, the Pope said that prayers need to increase.
"Your itinerary on the streets is over, but what must continue on the part of all is the spiritual journey of prayer, intense prayer," Francis told pilgrims and members of the community present.
"Concrete participation and tangible help in the defense and protection of our brothers and sisters, who are persecuted, exiled, killed, beheaded, for the only reason of being a Christian," are needed, he said, stressing that martyrs today are more numerous than in the first centuries of Christianity.
Francis closed his appeal by expressing his sincere hope "that the international community does not look the other way."
Momica also offered prayers that God would give the international community "the clarity of vision to see the truth and help (their) brethren in distress."