Christmas Letter from Iraqi Kurdistan

h1 class="western">Christmas Letter from Iraqi Kurdistan

Kirkuk, December 20th, 2011

Dear friends,

Thank you again for the warm welcome I received this fall from the Swiss and Italian members of the associations of friends of our monastic community. It felt good to have you near. Many thanks also for your numerous expressions of solidarity in these turbulent times for the Middle East. Our website's statistics and our “inbox” that you are following us attentive, thank you! The Middle East, and especially Syria, really needs much prayer and solidarity. We are witnessing a continuous rise of violence, and we cannot but call with all our energy to non-violence and reconciliation.

We know that reconciliation is painful because it involves the recognition of our own guilt in what we have done and what we have failed to do, and the humility to ask for forgiveness. Indeed, there is no reconciliation by saying “I forgive you”, but rather by asking to be forgiven, for only thus can we hope that the heart of the other opens itself.

La tomba del profeta Daniele

As you know, I have been in Iraq, in the Kurdistan region to be precise, for nearly two months. I am writing in front of Prophet Daniel's tomb, in the mosque of the Kirkuk's citadel. Here I realized that much of our Bible has been written on the territory of today’s Iraq. We are normally not paying attention, while reading the Books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah or Isaiah, but it is here, in this land of exile, that the Hebrews developed a spirituality able to separate itself from the need for political power. Here, the Hebrews made the bitter experience of serving another nation without the slightest hope to overthrow it one day. Based on that experience, transmitted through the scriptures and tradition, Christians, centuries later, have been able to live their own faith in the context of the Roman Empire and of the persecutions. It is also true in the case of our Chaldean Church, which through the centuries has matured its proper vocation, at the service of various peoples and empires without ever having a “Christian” king or state of its own.

This spirituality needs to be rediscovered in the twenty-first century, of course taking into consideration all the developments that took place over generations on the human, social, political and religious levels. No doubt that the ministry of Christians today must be aware of the exigencies arising from human rights, democracy, constitutional states, environmental issues, etc. However, this does not run contrary to a spirituality of exile and martyrdom.

The city of Kirkuk has a church – the Red Church – where three thousand Christians were killed under the Persian Empire. During the massacre, an extraordinary event took place: the skies opened, and the Persian commander saw Jesus welcoming the martyrs' souls. The persecutor converted and was in his turn later on martyred. How much blood for one lost sheep! I think however that the generosity shown by a majority willing to risk their safety and protection for the salvation of a minority or a single person is an integral part of Christian spirituality inspired by the first evangelical communities. Such spirituality can convince Muslims to take the responsibility of protecting the Christian community and being proud to have it among them. Recovering its evangelical flavor, the Church could also convince anew the Western society of the sincerity and honesty of Jesus' disciples, especially in a time in which Christianity has become a minority movement, and in which its institutions and communities are regarded with deep suspicion.

Il vescovo Luis Sako

About a year ago, Mgr. Louis Sako, Chaldean Bishop of Kirkuk, along with his friend and ours, the Lebanese Maronite monk Father Maroun Atallah, sent an email to father Paolo, asking him to come to Kurdistan and found a monastery of the al-Khalil confederation. After some exchanges, the first visit of Father Paolo was planned after Easter 2011. As you already know he discovered at that occasion that the Syrian government had suspended his residency permit. Since then he could not anymore travel outside Syria. Nevertheless, the Community wanted to take advantage of this opportunity, and other members were sent: three postulants (Fabiana, Friederike and Luis), a novice (Carol) and a monk (me).

We used the opportunity to visit Antakya (the historical Antioch), in Turkey, and pay a call to Barbara, a consecrated lay woman who, inspired by the community of Taizé (France), manages in this city a house of hospitality dedicated to inter-religious harmony. We in Deir Mar Musa feel a deep spiritual familiarity with her.

In Iraq, we visited Sulaymaniya, Kirkuk, Qaraqosh and the monasteries of Mar Bahnam, Mar Matta et Rabban Hormoz. Everywhere, we have been welcomed with generous and kind hospitality.

Already during our first meeting, the Bishop Luis Sako expressed the hope that our Community might help the local Church to approach the question of Islam in its depth.


He would like to have in his Eparchy (as dioceses are called in the Oriental Churches) a place of prayer and spiritual retreat, open to everybody, in order to offer formation to dialogue to believers, catechists and deacons. He offered us to settle in Sulaymaniya, in the old parish of the Virgin Mary, located in the historical centre, where only a handful of Christians still live.

Sulaymaniya is a modern City. Little is left of the historical centre, but the church is very pleasant and with its internal courtyard it is an oasis of quietness in a buzzing environment. The place immediately seemed suitable to us.


Upon our return, we gave a full account of our trip to the other members of the Community. Debates concluded on the decision to found in Sulaymaniya a monastic community belonging to the al-Khalil confederation. After a time of common reflection, I was sent for a "pilot" phase, in order to probe the terrain and prepare a place for three or four of us. I left on October 24th.

Bishop Sako welcomed me like a father in the family of his Eparchy. The Eparchy of Kirkuk is small (around 20 000 Christians, five priests including the Bishop). The tradition of deacons is very much alive here : appart of the liturgy they play an important role, also in the Eparchy and parishes' organization.

I discovered that, ethnically and above all linguistically, Iraq is far less homogenous than Syria. Differences are perceived more sharply here. Whereas the Chaldean Church, does not have a unique ethnical identity, and is conscious of this diversity. It encompasses a large human variety, from Turcomans to Arabs, Assyrians and Kurds. It is therefore a perfect place for dialogue, being kin to each ethnic-cultural community of the region.

For instance, Christians originating form Kirkuk speak Turcoman (a Turkish dialect) at home, while those from Suleymaniya speak Kurdish. There is still a significant number of Christians speaking Soreth (a Chaldean dialect). Religious living in Sulaymaniya must learn Kurdish to have any significant cultural exchange. Arabic will always be useful for travel and to communicate with the numerous Christians who are actually refugees from Baghdad and other places in Southern Iraq. Moreover, Arabic is the liturgical language of Islam and therefore is always an essential element to our vocation as a "Church of Islam".

Before Christmas, an apartment in front of this Virgin Mary church should become free. I will settle there and live until around the end of February, an eremitic-style life, and prepare the house for the next-comers: at the beginning only monks, but I am already thinking about the accommodation of nuns. There is much interest for a place of prayer. This is why the presence of nuns is very important, be it for the relations for the feminine part of the Church, for hospitality and retreats and for the relation with the neighborhood. Moreover, it would be strange group of our monastic community without the presence of nuns and monks.

On behalf of the organization of the church the Bishop has the an esthetic taste close to that of our community. A few days ago, he surprised me, telling me that he would like to take out the benches of the church and to lay it out with carpets so that one could sit on the ground for prayer. That would be like in Mar Musa! To be frank, I had already thought about such a change and was preparing to remove the bench lines one by one, discreetly! There are two big sitting rooms and another hall in the house: we shall see how to arrange all this. In the beginning it will not be so easy to set up a place for visitors, but in the Orient there is always a way to offer hospitality!

How to finance this new foundation? Until now, Mar Musa has put at my disposal the donations received during my trip to Europe, along with an important participation of its own. The Bishop Sako has also been very generous in covering nearly all my expenses. But we need a permanent system of financing. The Bishop suggests that one or two of us look for a job, for instance in a English-speaking school managed by nuns, or in a state cultural institution... There are also several humanitarian organizations in Sulaymaniya, and some take care of projects compatible with our spirituality. Anyway, one of the first priorities will be the intensive study of Kurdish. Then, with the knowledge of Kurdish and Arabic, job opportunities shall be more numerous.

Dear friends, we thank you for your prayers, especially those offered for reconciliation in Syria. Iraq also needs them. Especially today, after the withdrawal of the American army. Instead of the desired path towards reconciliation, situation could evolve into a new wave of violence. Even in North-Iraq, in Kurdistan, there are ambiguous signs.. There is lot of hope, but there are also a lot of shadows. Dialogue between communities is essential On this, local Christians can play an important role, because they are ethnically linked to all components of the Iraqi society. Mgr Luis Sako has understood this very well and makes important efforts to encourage representatives of various groups to engage into a constructive dialogue.

In Syria, despite a saddening outlook and the beginning of a civil war logic, we stick to hope and still believe in the capacity of the Syrian people for dialogue - a precious gift of this nation, worth to be rediscovered.

We also, in al-Khalil Community, pray for all and each of you.

Merry Christmas and happy new year.

Brother Jens


P.S. Many of you will already know that the decision to expel Father Paolo is for the time suspended on the condition, that he keeps out of the political sphere. To stay in Syria seemed to us a priority.