New York's Cardinal Dolan in Iraq: Embracing the displaced Iraqi Christians

This article appears in the Iraqi Kurdistan 2016 feature series. View the full series.

Editor's Note: Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York and chair of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a pontifical mission, traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan on a pastoral visit, April 8-11, to that region's displaced Christian families due to Islamic State attacks. Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre diocese on Long Island, New York, a CNEWA Board member, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, who heads Catholic Charities of the New York archdiocese, and the cardinal's priest secretary, Fr. James Ferreira, were also on the trip. NCR was a part of this small delegation. 

Shortly after his arrival to Erbil, Iraq, on April 8, 2016, Cardinal Timothy Dolan met at the hotel with the three American journalists, including this writer, for a brief conversation. He was clear what the goals of his visit were: To show solidarity with the displaced Iraqi Christian and Yazidi families; to express gratitude to the workers, volunteers and caregivers serving the displaced; and to support the local church and to demonstrate solidarity with it.

The cardinal was clear that he came with much humility. More than once he introduced himself and the U.S. delegation by acknowledging that "this is our first time in Iraq and that we do not know the Arabic language." In fact, Dolan was clear that he came to learn about the plight of the displaced due to Islamic State assaults on Mosul and Qaraqosh in summer 2014.


Related: The faces of displaced Iraqi Christians and Yazidis


The delegation visited three displacement camps, several health clinics, grammar schools, a seminary and the fledgling Catholic University of Erbil. The delegation also traveled three hours to the northern Iraqi town of Dohuk near the Turkish boarder for a Mass, a luncheon with the displaced families and a visit to a displacement camp largely serving the Yazidis.

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The cardinal told each group of people he met that "you thank us for being here, but we thank you for your Christian witness even when everything you had was taken away." The cardinal's outgoing personality, warmth and enthusiastic hugs overcame whatever limitations might have existed due to the difference in language.

The groundwork for this visit has been long in the making. 

For ninety years CNEWA has been serving the poor and suffering of the Middle East — and beyond. Its work is sophisticated in that CNEWA does not impose solutions to local problems, but rather seeks out people in the community such as women religious, church leaders, first responders and the suffering themselves to understand the priority of needs. 

Importantly, CNEWA does not arrive in a convoy of relief trucks to be off-loaded. Rather, CNEWA purchases what it needs in the local community and works with intense collaboration with all stakeholders. 

Pittsburgh, Pa.-native, Msgr. John Kozar, president of CNEWA, and his team based in New York, Lebanon and Jordan, have developed a substantive, realistic understanding of the complex political, religious and cultural challenges of working in places like Iraqi Kurdistan. 

CNEWA's Arabic-speaking staff of Michel Constantin, who leads the Beirut office and his colleague, Imad Abou Jaoude, program manager, and Ra'ed Bahou, the CNEWA regional director in Jordan, were instrumental in facilitating Dolan's pastoral visit. The staff has deep and broad relationships in the region that enables them to navigate the local scene.

The pastoral nature of the visit capitalized on Dolan's strength as a church leader. When he sees religious sisters, priests and laypeople working to alleviate the suffering of the poor and the displaced, he lights up and enthusiastically embraces them. He becomes energized by the interactions. His spontaneous sense of humor brought much laughter throughout the trip.

Visiting students and teachers in the classroom or on the playground, Dolan affirmed their efforts and the importance of education as a means to cultivate peace and understanding.

Dolan was co-hosted by Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, who was an integral part of each day's itinerary. Warda was a gracious host. He and Dolan clearly enjoyed each other's company. It falls to Warda to coordinate and direct U.S. and global aid for the displaced Christians living in Erbil and the surrounding region.

As a former seminary rector, Dolan was right at home visiting some 30 seminarians studying at St. Peter Patriarchal Seminary for the Chaldean Patriarchate in Erbil. The seminary was once located in Baghdad, but was moved to Erbil out of safety concerns. Dolan called the seminarians to become today's apostles and to remain close to the suffering people. 

The visit made a clear and lasting impression on Dolan. He witnessed the profound misery caused by ISIS and war, the cramped displacement camps, the pain and agony of loss and uncertainty about the future, the longing for home. Dolan also experienced the hope and resilience of the Iraqi people. He became inspired to bring home to the United States the urgent story of the displaced Iraqi Christians and Yazidis, to remain in solidarity with them and to become their advocate.

By any measure, Dolan's pastoral visit was a success and then some.

[Tom Gallagher is a regular contributor to NCR on domestic and foreign affairs and is the lead writer for the newspaper's Mission Management column.]


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