MOSUL’S former archbishop has named Australia one of the best countries for Iraqi refugees to build a new life amidst continued efforts by Islamic State to force a Christian “genocide” in their homeland.
Archbishop Georges Casmoussa, an episcopal leader of the Syriac Catholic Church born in Iraq and based in Lebanon, said Australia was the first choice for many refugees who were “pushed out” of Iraq by Islamic State militants.
The archbishop made his comments during a pastoral visit to Australia to meet with Syriac Catholic refugees and members of their Eastern rite living in Queensland, Sydney, Melbourne and Tasmania.
As an apostolic visitor to Syriac Catholics in Western Europe, Archbishop Casmoussa said Australia had more to offer Iraqi Catholics than European countries, including a better economy and fewer language barriers, as English was taught in Iraqi schools.
As a result, Australia has become the primary choice for Iraqi Christians fleeing their country, even topping the United States and Canada.
“Australia is the first choice, and I appreciate the level of the life here in Australia,” Archbishop Casmoussa said.
“It is very far from the movement of troubles in the world.”
Brisbane archdiocese has welcomed about 80 families who have fled Iraq since ISIS, often referred to in Arabic as “Daesh”, invaded the country in 2014.
These families, who have been welcomed into the Catholic communities at Bracken Ridge, Greenslopes, Logan and Darra, met with Archbishop Casmoussa during his three-day visit to Brisbane last week.
During his stay he offered Mass in the Syriac rite, one of the oldest rites in the Church.
“This meeting, this encounter with them – (and) the majority of them they know me personally, I was the Archbishop of Mosul and I am a member of this community – it was for me a deep joy and for them they were happy, really happy, to meet me as a bishop and as their Church, their history, their culture,” Archbishop Casmoussa said.
He met with Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge on December 4, discussing the best ways to provide for Syriac Catholics in the archdiocese.
Archbishop Coleridge said God was with the Syriac Catholics in their new home of Australia.
“My message to Syriac Catholics here is that God is no less with you now than in your homeland,” he said.
“Once the Word becomes flesh and rises from the dead, God is everywhere – which is why the Irish immigrants of other times would say, ‘You are never far from home if you can say your prayers’.
“And no-one can stop the Syriac Catholics from saying their prayers, whatever else they have been denied.
“God is with them.”
As well as offering Mass in the Syriac rite, Archbishop Casmoussa confirmed two Syriac Catholic children at St Maroun’s Maronite Church, Greenslopes, and baptised two babies during his visit to Brisbane.
“That is a sign of life continuing here,” he said.
It is a history and culture that is nearing extinction in Iraq under ISIS jihadists.
Crucifixes, churches, cathedrals, houses – all signs of Christianity – have been “destroyed, ransacked, stolen” since 2014, including in Christian villages of Mosul and Qaraqosh.
The destruction of Qaraqosh is particularly unsettling for Archbishop Casmoussa, who was born and raised in the Christian village, and found his calling to the priesthood there.
Archbishop Casmoussa believes this destruction, displacing more than 120,000 Christians, was a militant Islamic desire to deny the existence of Christianity in the Middle East.
He acknowledged that living in the Middle East as a Christian was extremely difficult, citing a personal incident where he was almost killed.
In 2005, when he was the Archbishop of Mosul, the unthinkable happened – Archbishop Casmoussa was kidnapped by armed gunmen who demanded the archdiocese pay a ransom for his release.
“In January of 2005 I was kidnapped by a terrorist group,” the archbishop said.
“I don’t know why but maybe to have money.
“I put in front of me the possibility of everything, to be killed, to die, and I asked God, ‘My God, help me to stay quiet and to keep my hope, and may Your will be done’.”
Less than 24 hours later, he was released, unharmed.
“I think this short prayer was, for me, a help to sustain me in acceptance of every end and to be able to speak with him slowly and without fear,” Archbishop Casmoussa said.
The difference between the terrorism 10 years ago and the state of destruction by ISIS now, was stark, he said.
“They (militant Islamics under the reign of Saddam Hussein) were recognising until this time the existence of Christians,” the archbishop said.
“Now with Daesh, the difference is they deny this existence.
“They try to destroy every sign of Christianity in this country.”
Recognition as true and equal citizens of Muslim countries, with rights regardless of religion or race, rather than the perception as “second-zone citizens”, would be the only way to bring real peace in the Middle East.
Archbishop Casmoussa will be in Australia to celebrate Masses for Christmas, New Year, and the Eastern rites’ most important feast, the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6.
“It is a big feast in our Eastern churches, because Epiphany that means the rising light of Christ to the world,” he said.
There are three Syriac Catholic priests in Sydney and one in Melbourne.
There is no designated priest to the Syriac Catholic Church in Brisbane but Archbishop Casmoussa hoped to offer a resident priest to the community in the future.
“We have spoken to the community about the possibility of Catholic priests to serve the community in our own rite, our own liturgy, Syriac and Arabic,” he said.
Archbishop Casmoussa will return to Lebanon on January 12.