By Paul Dobbyn
TWO religious sisters from Iraq with a Brisbane connection are living an increasingly perilous existence in the country’s north as sectarian violence rapidly spirals out of control.
Daughters of Jesus’ Sacred Heart Sisters Samar Mikha and Azhar Koka returned to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, in November 2012.
When they spoke to The Catholic Leader shortly before their departure, they had high hopes for a bright future assisting the setting up of Iraq’s first Catholic school in 40 years.
Sisters Mikha and Koka were taking back knowledge gained in educational administration after 18 months of studies at Brisbane’s Australian Catholic University.
Now the sisters and others in Iraq are the subject of Bracken Ridge parish prayers each week.
Parish priest Fr Gerry Hefferan, who worked closely with the sisters during their Brisbane stay and visited parts of Iraq’s north in 2009 and again last year, recently received an email from Sr Mikha expressing grave concerns for their safety.
“It’s hard to imagine the situation and the fear they must be living in,” he said.
“Sister Samar in her email thanked the parish for their prayers.
“She said three sisters from her religious order have fled from Mosul to Erbil.
“However, she said ‘even in Erbil it cannot be said we are safe’.
“‘We are under threat; please keep praying for us.’”
Fr Hefferan said Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil had also sent an email saying how grateful he was for the parish’s prayers.
“The archbishop was away from Iraq at the time he sent the email but said he would send detailed information on the situation in Erbil and elsewhere on his return,” he said.
Fr Hefferan said Archbishop Emil Shimoun Nona of Mosul had relatives in Brisbane.
“Both archbishops have also visited Brisbane in recent years,” he said.
Attacks on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an Iraq and Syria-based Sunni Muslim extremist group, have led to a mass exodus.
Up to a thousand Christian families were reported to have fled, for safer areas including Erbil.
ISIL wants to overthrow the Iraqi and Syrian governments and establish a Sunni Muslim Caliphate in the Middle East.
The latest news is alarming and disheartening for all involved with the sisters on their stay in Brisbane.
The sisters from the tiny, endangered religious order belonging to the Catholic Chaldean rite arrived in Brisbane with little English, but left the archdiocese with a command of the language, each having also gained a Masters in Educational Administration.
The Iraqi sisters’ success was due to their own extraordinarily dedicated work and a partnership between Fr Hefferan, Catholic Religious Australia Queensland, the Holy Spirit Sisters and the Missionary Franciscan Sisters community at Kedron.
Fr Hefferan’s visit to Iraq in 2009 set the study plan in motion. He was seeking ways to support the rapidly dwindling Catholic community there.
“For now though, the future is uncertain,” he said.
“Prayer is very important and I have sent out a message to the deaneries to take up the call for prayer for a peaceful solution to the current situation in Iraq.”