Father Luis Montes arrived in Baghdad in 2010 and he is witnessing with impotence “the disintegration” of that country; his distressing narration about the threat that the Islamic State represents
By Julieta Nassau / LA NACION
The 31st of October 2010, around six men armed with machine guns broke in the Sunday mass in the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation, in Baghdad. 58 people died, among them, two priests. The crosses and other religious symbols bursted into pieces. The jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack. Some days after, Father Luis Montes arrived to settle in that city; in the meanwhile the Christians’ exodus was increasing. Today, four years later, the priest is witnessing with impotence “the ethnic cleansing” in the conflictive country, threaten by the advance of this jihadist group.
During a telephone conversation with LA NACION, Fr. Montes hurries to make clear that, in Baghdad, he doesn’t coexist with the ISIS atrocities, because the capital is surrounded by a security operation that the extremists cannot break. However, you can feel distress in his voice when he talks about the Christians’ suffering, among other minorities, in the north of the country where they die or flee because of ISIS violence; the videos of the two American journalists’ beheadings are well known.
“The cruelty of the news we receive from the north were never seen before. This group ISIS commits violent acts and moreover they use them as propaganda. Crucifixions, beheading even 10 years old children; kidnapping women for the soldiers and for selling, before torturing till they accept becoming Muslims….. We are seeing the disintegration of this country that we love so much”, regrets Fr. Montes, a priest from Buenos Aires, born in Darragueira 44 years ago.
Beside Fr. Luis, Father Jorge Cortés, both from the Incarnate Word Institute, they are the only two south American priests in this country and this is why they are running a Facebook page and a blog (http://friendsofiraq.verboencarnado.net/ and https://www.facebook.com/friendsofiraq) where they tell in Spanish and English how is the everyday life in that country, a task that they consider as their bigger contribution. But it’s not the only one. They also receive small donations that they mainly distribute in the northern refugee camps, the more affected area by the ISIS atrocities, they also stock some because they think refugees will soon start arriving in the capital looking for safety.
“The refugees have nothing. Their wedding rings were stolen; the golden earrings from the babies, even the hearing aid from an 8 years old boy so they could use the battery. They lost everything and suddenly they are living in refugee camps where they have no possibilities of getting anything” tells us the priest. Immediately, he highlights the “organization” of the region’s churches, with the donations they receive from other churches around the world they try to build from scratch a place to live, with food, potable water and shelter from the 60º C that can be reached in summer; and without epidemics.
According to Iraq’s Church official numbers, before the American arrival in 2003, there were almost one and a half million Christians in the country. The country’s Chaldean-Catholic Patriarch, the most popular rite there, Luis Rafael Sako I, calculates that nowadays there are only 300,000 and he’s afraid that after the ISIS attacks they will remain around 50.000.
“It’s an ethnic and religious cleansing: they kill the ones who don’t think like them. If it continues like this, it will become genocide. They are looking for extermination in this country. Christ’s cross is hated. Christians are the first ones to be eliminated”, says the Argentinean priest.
Montes, as the Bagdad’s Cathedral’s priest, is in charge of signing the baptism certificates that are needed to leave the country, he can measure the impact in the capital of the news from the north of the country. Only last Tuesday, for instance, he signed 20.
“I would prefer [the families] to stay, but we cannot pressure them, interfere in such a personal decision. I try to make them think about things they don’t normally consider: that they will have to get adapted to a new culture, get a job. I have to explain so because, due to their hard circumstances, they think that in any other place they will be better. But it’s not always the case. And once abroad they cannot come back to the country”, he adds.
“Till not long ago, in Baghdad, many wanted to stay. Now they have no more hope for peace. Some they don’t even want to emigrate to other Arab country. To the Church this is devastating and also to the society, because it is loosing an important part of its national network” he considers. “For every Christian that leaves, the community rests more helpless, weaker”, he goes on saying.
The priest adds that in Iraq, they feel that a civil war is imminent and that it will end with the division of the state between Sunnis (the Islam branch that ISIS belong to), the Kurdish and “the rest”. This is why, he calls for a national unity government that gathers all the religions and promotes tolerance in a society that is traditionally tribal.
Fr. Montes, who will come to Argentina in less than two weeks to visit his mother, doesn’t hesitate staying in Iraq despite the risks. “Our life is to stay with the Christians. We will stay in Baghdad as long as there are Christians”, says convincingly, he even adds: “I would even like to stay forever in Iraq. But, of course, I will go wherever I am sent”
Pope Francis’ help
Pope Francis quotes are always present in Fr. Luis words, he says he’s profoundly thankful to the Argentinean Pontiff for trying, almost daily, to draw the international community’s attention to this conflict, and he reproaches many things to this community.
Montes felt as an invaluable gesture the arrival in Baghdad, few days ago, of Cardinal Fernando Filoni, ex Vatican nuncio in Iraq, who brought with him Francis personal message and material aid worth a million dollars.
“The Pope uses all the media to ask for help. He is the voice that doesn’t shut up in defense of this country. This is very consoling for the Christians” says the priest and he points that he didn’t talk to the Pope because “the Pope talked to the people in the North”.
Montes remembers the Pontiff’s words when he asks for foreign intervention against ISIS’s advance when he assures that “it’s legitimate to defend yourself against an unfair aggressor”, but he is questioning US airstrikes because he considers them “a patch”.
“The airstrikes are for the Kurdistan not to fall under ISIS control. They are taking care of their own interests. They don’t think about the Christians. What the Pope has asked is that the UN and the world’s leading countries make the right decision on how to stop this massacre” he says and he also demands and investigation and punishment for the neighboring countries that are financing ISIS.
“One of the most brutal and killer groups in history is still receiving aid “he stresses with indignation”. At that moment, it came to his mind the four years while, in vain, he wished peace for the Christians in Iraq.