Beirut — Despite the extreme hardship of being exiled from their homes in Iraq, the Easter vigil was a day of great joy for the parents of eight babies who were baptized in Lebanon.
Carried by his grandmother, 40-day-old Nimar, was the first to arrive at St. Elias Melkite Catholic Church.
Settling into a pew, the grandmother told Catholic News Service that Nimar is the first of her 12 grandchildren to be baptized outside of the family's ancestral parish near Mosul, Iraq, an area overrun by Islamic State militants.
"I would have preferred, if life were like before, that he would have been baptized in Iraq with all our family around," said the grandmother, who asked that she not be identified because she feared retribution against her family by militants in Iraq. "But the most important thing is that he is being baptized. Today he will be a true Christian."
For his baptismal name, the family chose Behnam, a martyr and saint revered in the Syriac Catholic Church. The Mar Behnam monastery, near Mosul, dating to the fourth century, recently was destroyed by the Islamic State.
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The grandmother added that it was a great consolation and honor that her grandson would be baptized by the Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, something she never could have imagined back home.
The patriarchate is assisting 1,200 Iraqi refugee families in Beirut.
Most of the families were among the more than 70,000 Syriac Catholics who were driven from Mosul and the Ninevah Plain by militants of the Islamic State last summer after being forced to choose between abandoning their faith and converting to Islam or leaving. At first, an estimated 100,000 exiled minorities sought sanctuary in Kurdistan in northern Iraq, living in tents, prefabricated huts and unfinished buildings. Thousands have since left for Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey with the hope of moving abroad.
The refugees live several families together, in small apartments in Dekwaneh north of Beirut, too far from the patriarchate located on the other side of the city. St. Elias Church has become the adopted parish for the beleaguered Syriacs and their patriarch was coming to serve them.
Syriac Catholic Fr. Firas Dardar, who organizes the patriarchate's outreach to refugees, tended to last-minute details in preparation for the baptism ceremony.
The patriarch also celebrated the Easter vigil Mass that followed the baptism ceremony on an altar decorated with baskets of colorful Easter eggs. Excitement built as Younan entered the church. His voice from the altar was drowned out at first by the chatter in the overflowing pews.
Soon, the only distraction was an occasional cry from the babies in the front pew. Older children, some carrying younger kids, made their way to the front of the church for a better view.
Younan reminded the congregation that baptism represents the Resurrection.
"Despite all the suffering and all the misery, we will baptize these babies so they can be God's children," he said. "We do not fear to be exiled. We hope this water becomes a font of joy and happiness."
Following the tradition back home in Iraq, a baptized child has just one godparent: Girls have a godmother and boys have a godfather. One father took on the role of godfather because he and his wife had no male relatives living in Lebanon.
The patriarch anointed each baby with chrism oil and then baptized each in the holy water font. Camera phones in hand, family members surrounded the patriarch, vying to record the ceremony.
After the babies were baptized, the patriarch fastened each child's bonnet. He then called each new Catholic by name, inviting them for a procession around the altar.
The service ended with applause and a chorus of joyous ululating.
While members of the overflowing congregation remained in place for the Mass, newly baptized baby Makari could not stay. Outside, Makari's father explained that his 5-month-old son, who spent the first two weeks of his life in intensive care, remained weak and that rest was needed.
"He was born sick because of all the bombings [in Iraq]," he said.
When the Islamic State invaded their village near Mosul in the summer, the man, who also asked not to be identified, and his wife -- at the time in the third trimester of her pregnancy -- walked seven hours to reach Irbil with their sons, ages 6 and 9.
"We were so afraid," Makari's father said.
Although the family lost their home and their future is uncertain, he said, "Right now, I am so happy. Jesus is everything for us. He is our savior. He saved our family. I thank God we are Christian."