Pre-Christmas celebration gives hope to Iraqi refugees still in Lebanon

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan is pictured with the Holy Missionary Choir during a pre-Christmas celebration for Iraqi Syriac Catholic refugee families in Lebanon Dec. 12, 2020. The celebration was at Sts. Behnam and Sarah Church in Fanar, Lebanon. (CNS photo/courtesy Syriac Catholic patriarchate)

FANAR, Lebanon (CNS) -- Toddlers could hardly contain their excitement as they danced in the church aisles to the Holy Missionary Choir's Christmas songs during a celebration that was a bright star of hope for Iraqi Syriac Catholic refugee families.

While the little ones are too young to know their ancestral roots, Christmas memories for their parents are those of large, joyous extended family gatherings and prosperity in Iraq. Life there centered around the church, as it still does while they are in exile.

The families are among the more than 100,000 Christians driven out from Iraq's Ninevah Plain by the Islamic State in the summer of 2014. Lebanon is only an intermediary place in their quest to be resettled to a Western country.

"Even though I am sad, I am very happy to sing in the choir," said Ranwaq Kajoo of the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, which was completely emptied of Christians in a single night six years ago. She was proud that her 3-year-old daughter, Darine, also sang a song during the Sts. Behnam and Sarah Church gathering Dec. 12.

"It is very difficult," Kajoo said of her family's life in Lebanon as they wait to immigrate to Australia. "But we hold on to our faith and keep close to the church. This is what gives us strength.”

The choir sang in Arabic and Aramaic, the ancient language of Jesus. Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan told those gathered that the choir was "an expression of love that never disappears, no matter how many storms strike our lives.”

He pointed to the phrase "glory to his humility" featured in one of the songs, noting that it "expresses the situation of us Christians, especially our displaced brothers and sisters who glorify the Lord for his humility. The eternal word is humble and is born among us.”

The patriarch stressed that "despite all that we have suffered in the past, and what we suffer in the present, and despite all the unknowns that are before us in the future, our life is in his hands, the Almighty, which is love as the Bible taught us.”

Patriarch Younan commended the families for remaining "steadfast in your faith despite all that has befallen you.”

The patriarchate, based in Beirut, has been assisting displaced Iraqi Syriac Catholic families in Lebanon since their 2014 expulsion from their homes in Iraq. Initially, there were 1,600 families. Many have since been resettled by the UNHCR to Western countries, mostly to Australia. Currently, 214 families still remain in Lebanon.

"We rejoice with you because you are heading toward the future that we hope will be more bright," Patriarch Younan said, adding that "our heart also grieves for your loss, as you head toward the future across seas and oceans.”

Asking for God's blessing upon the families, the patriarch assured them that "we will continue to follow you with our prayers and supplications.”

The families clapped as Santa Claus rang his bell and distributed festively wrapped Christmas gifts to all the children.

Kajoo said she was "so happy" to hear the news of Pope Francis' planned visit to Iraq in March.

"I hope the pope can do something for Qaraqosh," one of the planned stops on the papal visit itinerary. "I wish to go to Qaraqosh to see the pope but it's very difficult," Kajoo said.

Typically, refugees registered with the United Nations are not permitted to return to their homeland or face forfeiting their refugee status and thus their chance for resettlement.