NEWTON — The sound of overlapping prayers chanted in both Arabic and English filled Mary Immaculate of Lourdes parish Saturday evening as parishioners joined the Iraqi community to pray for peace and an end to the persecution of Christians in Iraq.
“Particularly in times like this, we must remember that Christ is the light, that Christ is victorious,” the Rev. Michael Harrington, director of the office of outreach and cultural diversity for the Boston Archdiocese, told the several hundred at Mass. “We must all be reflections of that light, bringing hope where there is only despair.”
He deplored the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq, where it is reported that up to 100,000 Christians have fled toward Iraqi Kurdistan under pressure from the militant group.
“There are no words to describe it,” said Sermed Ashkouri, an Iraqi immigrant and co-coordinator of Our Lady of Mesopotamia Syriac Catholic Mission. “It’s a holocaust right now.”
Ashkouri said his family and friends in Mosul and surrounding villages have been forced out of their homes after Islamic State threatened to kill Christians and other religious minorities who do not flee or convert to Islam.
The Rev. Bassim Shoni, chaplain to the Iraqi Community of Boston, encouraged people to pray for the suffering Iraqis “kicked out from their villages, their homes, with nothing.”
Passed out with prayer books Friday was a flier depicting the Arabic letter ‘N,’ standing for ‘Nasrani,’ the Arabic word for Christian. In Mosul, the letter was spray-painted on Christian homes to be seized by Islamic State. Those Christians were given an ultimatum, the flier said: Convert to Islam and pay a religious levy, or face death. Tens of thousands fled.
Some of Andy Aulo’s relatives were forced to make the 25-mile trek from their predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh to northern Iraq with no time to bring anything but the clothes on their backs.
“It makes me feel sick,” said Aulo, 20, who lives in Worcester after leaving Iraq in 2010. “All the memories I had there, my childhood, my friends — it’s disappointing.”
The Mass, he said, was a chance to come together. In the midst of the strife, it was a small help.
In a blog post this week, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley asked Catholics around the world to pray for the people of Iraq.
“It is important that we pray for them during this time when so much of the Christian population has been completely displaced and so many people have lost their homes, their families, and even their lives,” he wrote Friday, the same day he celebrated a Mass focused on the Iraqi situation at St. Leonard’s Church in the North End.
Last week, Pope Francis condemned the militants’ campaign against religious minorities, which he said left him “in dismay and disbelief.” In his Sunday blessing, he cited “thousands of people, including many Christians, driven from their homes in a brutal manner; children dying of thirst and hunger in their flight; women kidnapped; people massacred; [and] violence of every kind.
“All this gravely offends God and humanity. Hatred is not to be carried in the name of God,” he added. “War is not to be waged in the name of God.”
Saturday’s Mass in Newton was “a time to give them our support and pray for them and tell them they’re not alone in this country,” said Father Charles J. Higgins of Mary Immaculate of Lourdes, where the Iraqi community often celebrates Mass.
The Syriac Catholic Mission, which has grown to include 90 mostly refugee families, provides a sense of home to Iraqis in America. Every few weeks, Shoni drives 600 miles from Allentown, Pa., to deliver Mass in Arabic and Syriac.
“It brings joy and happiness because they feel like they’re home. They can relax,” said Ashkouri, who moved to the United States in 1991. Parishioners in Newton carry on traditions, such as leaping over fire to celebrate Eid al-Salib, in early Christian tradition, a celebration of Saint Helena’s finding of the cross used in Jesus’s crucifixion.
Many non-Iraqis attended in solidarity. Veronika Vanags of Latvia sat solemnly as the crowd prayed in Arabic. “This is very serious,” she said. “God will hear our prayers in peace, and he will help.”
Ashkouri said he hopes the man chosen to be the country’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will be able to quell the violence of the Islamic State.
“They are more than terrorists,” Ashkouri said. “They are more than monsters.”
He urged that donations be sent to areas where persecuted Christians are relocating. Some churches in Iraq are flooded with people seeking help, he said, while other churches have been destroyed.
“It makes me cry,” Ashkouri said, lamenting that thousands of years of history can disappear in a matter of days. “It’s our home.”Claire McNeill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @clairemcneill.