Iraqi refugee children make First Communion in Erbil camp

On Friday, the first of three rounds of displaced Iraqi children made their First Communion in a refugee camp in Erbil, providing a silver lining to an otherwise bleak situation. Out of the 5,500 people living in Erbil’s Aishty 2 camp for the displaced, the majority – more than 2,000 – are children. 

Of these, 470 will make their First Communion in the coming weeks. The number of children receiving the sacrament is up from last year’s class, which numbered about 400. Since this year’s number of recipients is so high, the children have been divided into three groups. The first, numbering around 175, made their First Communion on Friday, May 27. 

Next Friday, June 3, a second group of about 145 will receive the Eucharist, while the third and final group of about 150 will receive the sacrament Friday, June 10. All of the children are from the Syriac-Catholic rite, and most fled the city of Qaraqosh, the former Christian capitol of Iraqi Kurdistan, with their families when ISIS militants attacked the night of Aug. 6, 2014. 

The May 27 Mass for the first group was celebrated by Syriac-Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Yohanno Petros Moshe in the camp’s large, prefabricated church. With a capacity for roughly 800 people, the church started out as a tent when the Christian refugees first poured into Erbil two years ago, asking for a place to pray. 

Now it serves as the main parish for the city’s Aishty camp, which is the largest in Erbil and is divided into three smaller camps: Aishty 1, 2 and 3. The majority of people in the camp are from Qaraqosh, which is where the former See of their Church had been located before ISIS’ assault in 2014. 

After moving the official See of their Church from Mosul to Qaraqosh several years ago due to both security concerns and the fact that most of the faithful resided in the city, Syriac-Catholics have now been left without any official diocese or headquarters whatsoever. 

Now residing in a largely Chaldean dominated Erbil, they have been welcomed by the local Church and are working daily to keep up the spirits of their faithful, who face an uncertain future in the country. 

For nearly 500 children to receive their First Communion in the camp is a sign of hope in a place where the flame of Christianity is flickering, growing dangerously closer to burning out. Another sign of hope for Iraq’s Christians was the March ordination of four deacons in the same prefabricated parish. 

They are now working with refugees around the clock, and will likely be ordained priests in a few months’ time. Three of the deacons, alongside the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena – who largely make up the backbone of Erbil’s extensive displaced Christian community – have been in charge of teaching the children’s catechesis in scripture and liturgy. 

By Elise Harris

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