By Paul Dobbyn
A BRISBANE priest with links to Catholic communities in Iraq has spoken of an “ongoing disaster” which could see the Christian presence completely vanish from cities such as Mosul.
Bracken Ridge parish priest Fr Gerry Hefferan said “for the first time in 1600 years, (Sunday) Mass has not been said anywhere in Mosul”.
He said the situation had struck close to home with one local family very concerned for the wellbeing of family members in Iraq’s north.
“For these reasons, St Joseph’s and St Anthony’s Bracken Ridge and Bald Hills parish at its monthly meeting last week announced a prayer vigil to be hosted by the parish,” Fr Hefferan said.
“The vigil will start with an ecumenical service at 3pm on Sunday, August 3.”
Fr Hefferan said the local family had already suffered losses.
“They had a nephew, a priest, killed in the bombing of a Baghdad cathedral in 2010,” he said.
“Their anxiety has been relieved somewhat with news in the past few days that their relatives have been able to return to their hometown of Qaraqosh.
“However, when the family returned home there was no power nor water.”
Fr Hefferan said the security situation was changing all the time “as borders between Iraq and Kurdistan keep moving due to ongoing conflict”.
The Islamic militant Sunni sect, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), has been rampaging across the north and west of Iraq since early June, demolishing sites sacred to Christians and Muslims.
The group has been opposed by Shiite forces with many civilian deaths reported in the resulting civil war.
Fr Hefferan has also been basing his observations on the unfolding disaster on his contacts with Church leaders and religious in Iraq’s north.
Some of these contacts were made during a visit to Iraq and Kurdistan in 2009 to look at ways to share Brisbane archdiocese’s expertise in education and health with the struggling communities there.
Among Fr Hefferan’s contacts are two Chaldean archbishops – Amel Nona of Mosul and Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil – who have visited Brisbane archdiocese in the past two years.
Archbishop Nona’s niece did her teaching practice in Bracken Ridge’s St Joseph’s School two years ago.
“The statistics we are starting to hear are terrible,” Fr Hefferan said.
“Archbishop Nona said that at least three-quarters of the people in his diocese are on the run.
“In fact in a recent statement to Aid to the Church in Need, the archbishop said his diocese no longer exists.”
Fr Hefferan has had email contact with Archbishop Warda in the past week.
“The archbishop spoke of the great challenge of housing refugees fleeing from the Ninevah province,” he said.
“The region of Erbil was already also dealing with an influx of refugees from the fighting in Syria.”
Two Chaldean religious – Daughters of Jesus’ Sacred Heart Sisters Samar Mikha and Azhar Koka – who studied in Brisbane in 2011 and 2012, are also keeping in touch.
Fr Hefferan said reports of many alarming events were continuing.
“Two houses occupied by Christian people in Mosul have been seized by militants.
“Rebels are also reported to have removed crosses at the front of Mosul’s Chaldean cathedral and the Syrian Orthodox cathedral and replaced them with the black flag of the Islamic state.”
Fr Hefferan was to have had discussions at a Bracken Ridge parish council meeting last Monday night for ways to support the besieged Christian communities in Iraq.
“These are very dark times for all of Iraq’s people,” he said.