MANY concerns weigh on the minds of two Sisters from a tiny, endangered religious order in Iraq currently studying at Brisbane’s Australian Catholic University (ACU).
For Daughters of Jesus’ Sacred Heart Sisters Samar Mikha and Azhar Koka these concerns include the health and education of Catholics in their war-torn country, particularly those of the Chaldean community.
The Sisters are also planning to share knowledge gained from their ACU studies in English and educational administration when they return to Kurdistan, in Iraq’s north, in mid-2013.
There, in conjunction with the Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, they intend to help set up a Catholic university.
Their study opportunity followed a visit to Iraq in 2009 by Brisbane priest Fr Gerry Hefferan, who was seeking ways to support the rapidly dwindling Catholic community there.
However, when Sr Koka recently spoke with The Catholic Leader, her primary concern was to spread the message that her order was celebrating the jubilee of the centenary of its foundation.
“Our order celebrates the jubilee as a moment of meditation and prayer for the path of God’s salvation for blessing our land and people,” she said.
“The establishment of our order reaches back to 1908 in a village called Araden, in the north of Iraq, where four girls gathered around Fr Ablahad Rayes helping him in serving the sick, teaching mothers in raising children and organising family matters as well as the catechism.
“The spirit of the young nunnery was characterised from the beginning with a biblical simplicity and meekness.
“They were following Christ’s saying: ‘Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart’ (Matthew 11:29) and taking this as a slogan for their lives.
“Fr Rayes founded the convent, taking the name of the Nunnery of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on August 15, 1911, hoping to spread the worship of the Sacred Heart to be known and loved everywhere.”
Sr Koka explained the convent’s spirituality was based on that of the Sacred Heart as revealed by Jesus through his apparitions to St Margarita Mary Alakok.
The focus would be worship of the Sacred Heart and the Eucharist.
This would quickly become part of the rich tradition of the Chaldean community, an eastern rite of the Catholic Church.
However, Iraq’s turbulent history was soon to impact on the order’s development with “three stages of displacement since 1919”, the most recent being the result of the so-called “War on Terror”.
The Daughters of Jesus’ Sacred Heart have 38 Sisters. The order owns three convents in Baghdad, one of which provides shelter for an Iraqi family left homeless by the war.
“In Iraq now,” Sr Koka said, “life has become increasingly difficult for Catholics and the population in general.
“This is not a good government … it has lost the law.”
Prior to leaving for Australia, Sr Koka had relocated from Baghdad to the relative safety of Erbil where she was director of a house for children while Sr Mikha taught choir and religion.
The order was involved in various projects as it sought to return order to the war-torn country.
“Projects included the ‘Kids House’ established in Ankawa (a suburb of Erbil) in 1994,” Sr Koka said.
“This year, the number being helped reached 260 children, with 27 teachers.
“Then there is the project of ‘Blessed are the Merciful’ which has helped more than 60 elderly and wheel-chaired women.
“The Good Shepherd House, founded in 1998 in the Al Naser Monastery in Mosul, takes care of socially marginalised girls.
“So far we have received 80 girls, 35 of them have continued their lives as married women, some are devoted to the Lord and some of them have been engaged to work.”
Bracken Ridge-based Fr Hefferan’s concern that all Catholics might be driven from Iraq led to his 2009 visit to Chaldean communities there.
Since then a partnership has been formed between the ACU, the Holy Spirit Sisters, Catholic Religious Australia (Queensland) and the Daughters of Jesus’ Sacred Heart.
Both Sisters had some English before arriving in June but Fr Hefferan said he had noticed a rapid improvement since then.
“Education, health and social welfare are major areas where the Muslim communities recognise Christian expertise,” he said.
“Sisters Azhar and Samhar can contribute further to this when they return with the knowledge gained from their studies in Australia.”
Sr Koka agreed.
“We plan to return in June 2013 to work with the Archbishop of Erbil to found a Catholic university in the north of Iraq,” she said.
“There is much work to be done – after war in 2003 the level of education went down … many teachers and professors fled Iraq.
“Our academic ambitions are focused on raising the cultural and educational level in Iraq.
“Our future vision for work is to support the educational institutions and to intensify efforts to establish schools and Catholic universities.
“It is also to create opportunities for leadership upbringing based on the Church’s vision.”