The powerful witness of Iraqi young people at World Youth Day

World Youth Day in Brazil July 28 2013 Credit Michelle Bauman CNA World Youth Day in Brazil, July 28, 2013. | Michelle Bauman/CNA.

Among the swarms of pilgrims registered for World Youth Day in Poland next week is a large group of Iraqi youth, who aim to witness to the joy of their faith despite ongoing violent persecution.

"I want everyone to see a witness of faith, of suffering faith, and the faith of our group," Fr. Rayan Atto told CNA July 19.

He said they don't need "anything special" from the other pilgrims they'll meet in Krakow, but instead want to ensure the others "that we love them, they are our best friends, and we want to work in this mission with them all over the world."

"The only thing we need is (for them) to look at our faces: we are so happy and proud to be Christians in this area," he added.

Fr. Atto is in charge of coordinating the large group of Iraqi youth traveling to Krakow for the July 26-31 event with Pope Francis, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across the globe.

Split into three different groups based on the area where they live, there are 315 people in total coming from Iraq, including two bishops, 10 priests and several nuns. There is also a separate group of pilgrims coming from the Neocatecumenal Way.

The youth themselves come from all over the country, including cities such as Erbil, Baghdad, Kirkuk and Dohuk.

Roughly half of the youth who are coming have been displaced from cities such as Baghdad, Mosul and surrounding villages, yet all of them were able to pay their own way, thanks in part to donations made by Aid to the Church in Need and the Vatican's department for the Laity.

Poland gave visas to the pilgrims free of charge, however, they still had to raise funds for the cost of the paperwork, airfare and lodging.

Fr. Atto said that as coordinator, he and the other organizers have sought to foster a strong sense of unity among the youth, so that those who are displaced don't feel ashamed.

"We keep this unity in order not to distinguish between the young people," he said, explaining that they don't want anyone "to feel that they are displaced," but rather at home with their peers.

He said keeping their faith strong amid the daily struggles they face "is not that easy," but is something they fight to maintain through the sacraments and spiritual meetings such as retreats or prayer events.

"Our grandfathers, they kept their faith for us and we are feeding it" through spiritual things, he said, adding that the sacraments and prayer "will help us to show our faith, our Christianity. That's the only thing we have. We are keeping the faith for other generations."

The different groups arrived together July 20, and will stay in Krakow through Aug. 1, the day after the official WYD events have finished.

All members of the Chaldean rite, the youth will meet with other communities from around the world and will share Masses and catechesis sessions together.

On July 22 the group will celebrate a large Chaldean-rite Mass which will be followed by a brief catechism on themes related to the official WYD program.

Other activities the group will participate include a cultural show, during which they will introduce their group with dancing and will wear the traditional clothing from Iraq's Christian villages.

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A special catechesis session will be given July 27, in which bishops from around the world will lead a reflection on the WYD theme, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy," in different languages. One of the organizers of the Iraqi group will offer a reflection in Arabic.

During the Via Crucis with Pope Francis July 29, a number of the Iraqi youth will form a choir and sing both the Our Father and Psalm 115 in Aramaic in front of the Pope and the rest of the youth from around the world. Aramaic is an ancient language spoken during the time of Jesus and is the language of the Chaldean rite.

Fr. Atto said the choir will be given 10 minutes to sing while the Stations of the Cross are being acted out by youth below.

"Our pilgrims," he said, "will be there with all the youth from all over the world. We are very happy and excited and we are waiting to give this testimony to all the people."

"We know that everyone is waiting for us and watching us, and they want to know about us, our faith," he said, adding that his hope for the Iraqi youth who go is that they "bring with them their faith, improve their faith…and come back with more faith. That's my goal."

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