Interview with Fr Luis Montes*, IVE to the information service of the Holy See Foundation “Aid to the Church in Need” (ACN).
Original link of the news: https://www.ain-es.org/fichaNoticias/detalleNoticia.aspx?identificador=2469
Father Luis Montes is a missionary priest of the Order of the Incarnate Word in the Community “Christ the King” in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. He arrived to the Middle East from his native Argentina almost twenty years ago. After being Provincial in his congregation in Egypt, was chosen to be part of the missionary community in Iraq four years ago. His response to this new mission was a big yes, despite the difficulties of a country that had just emerged from the war and where Christians are a persecuted minority.
“It was a country which I dreamed of going to found a mission. So I was very glad” said the priest in a radio interview on Vatican Foundation ‘Aid to the Church in Need’ through Radio Maria-Spain. The emergence of the Islamic militants, ISIS in Iraq has worsened the situation of Christians, many of whom have begun to arrive to Baghdad, the capital, where they found in churches their refuge, searching for help -among them the Latin Cathedral where Fr Luis is serving.
What is the situation you are living in Baghdad in terms of the humanitarian crisis that currently affecting Iraq?
The situation in Baghdad has not changed much despite the emergence of this terrorist group in the north of the country. As the Islamic State took Mosul, thousands of Shiite militias came to the capital to defend it, so the terrorists have failed to get here. Of course there is more fear, there are fewer people on the streets, and it has become more difficult to move around. But people here are confident that the ISIS Militants will not be able to enter Baghdad and in that sense our life has not changed much. There is a wave of newly arriving displaced families that are being received in convents and schools. This is how we are seeing our daily life changing, hearing terrible stories of what these families have suffered.
How is the mission amidst a mostly Muslim country where Christians are struggling to live their faith?
It is certainly a big challenge and something totally different from what we know in the West. It’s all in dribs and drabs; you cannot perform pastoral activities outside the church, such as processions. Here Christians do not have any of that. All our apostolate is inside the church, on a smaller scale, with less parishioners and many people who are hostile to Christianity. Beside all this, there is the issue of insecurity, which was a serious problem even prior to these terrorists’ arrival. For years it is estimated that there are about twenty attacks per day in Iraq. In various areas of Baghdad, several attacks take place almost every day . This certainly creates a dangerous scenario. We live in a place where Christians cannot live their faith freely, where they are discriminated just because they are a minority. It is a place where even children suffer discrimination in schools. This adds to the insecurity and violence in a post-war country. It is a big challenge for us to keep the Gospel alive.
Amid this situation, what steps have been taken to help these displaces people?
Here we try to do everything. We keep doing the same pastoral action to provide spiritual sustenance, only more difficult to get to do everything. As for humanitarian aid, we are trying to get help to meet basic needs and also coordinate their distribution. This is our day to day life. The first families who have just arrived are being served in our parishes but many more are already asking for shelter. Thus, we expect the upcoming arrival of thousands of new refugees to Baghdad because there seems to be no more room for them in the north as many are still sleeping the streets.
What draws your attention of the Church in Iraq? What have you learned from it at this time?
The phrase I always say is, “I am not worthy to serve the people of this country”. This country is giving martyrs. Almost everyone I know in Iraq and in other Middle Eastern countries has someone in their families killed for his/her faith. Others have suffered persecution or direct discrimination. For us, it is an honour to serve these people. To the world, the number of the martyrs in the Middle East is quite impressive. However, few are the people who know about them, but many years after, those martyrs will be acknowledged equally as the martyrs of the first years of Christianity. So for me, it is an honour to be here and I consider it a special grace of God. I am very surprised for such a great devotion they have towards the Virgin. Having faith despite persecution is moving as well as their sensitivity towards their fellow men. God knows what He wants from us in the future, but I would like to serve in this area all my life.
What is the testimony of Christian refugees from Iraq that has impacted you the most?
The most horrific case I have heard is that of a lady who has her mother, her brother and her sister in law in the city of Qaraqosh, who were unable to flee because the mother was old and they stayed to help her. The terrorists placed a great them every day to convert to Islam. Their own neighbors keep insulting them, treating them with contempt. They cannot even leave their house to buy food that is already running out. They cannot leave because either they are not allowed or they are afraid their mother might be killed. One day ISIS militants came in and directly told them that they would take the wife to deliver her as a slave to a soldier. These people keep living dreadful and terrible realities; nevertheless remain firm in their faith. They are an example to all of us, and it is bliss from God if we are able to help them, though there is little we can do.
What would be a quick solution to this situation?
The solution is easy but nobody wants to implement it. First, there is an urgent need to bring about a large-scale of humanitarian aids. Help is coming, but very little compared to what is needed. Secondly, there is a need for international pressure on groups and governments that support these terrorist militants due to private interests and that have fed a monster, which threatens this and other countries as well. If this is not done urgently, cruelty, murder and death will be extended for a long time. And thirdly, we need the international community to have one united move to stop the advance of these terrorists. The Pope has said that defence is legitimate, which is contained in the Catechism of the Church. The Pope has repeated it, he wants a response within the UN that has legitimacy but unfortunately we see that nothing happens, nobody moves, nobody tries to join a legitimate force. There is no consistent condemnation of these militants. Therefore we see very little hope from here.
The Holy Father said that he would have liked to go to Iraq, what do you think of these gestures of the Pope?
The Holy Father has great sensitivity in his closeness to the people of Iraq, using all means available to him: television, radio, social networking. This is very important for Christians in Iraq. We highly value the fact that he personally sent a person to visit the country, which he has seen with his own eyes the suffering of these people and has personally informed the Pope. It shows the closeness of the Holy Father to this country, and for us it is a great comfort. We pray for him.
For more information, visit the blog of the Order of the Incarnate Word in Iraq, “Friends of Iraq”.
*Luis Montes, IVE (first priest on the right), with the Latin Bishop of Baghdad and children who made their First Communion this year in the Latin Cathedral in Baghdad