Dominican sisters of St Catherine of Siena


“Remember the word I spoke to you,
‘No slave is greater than his master.’
If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” (Jn 15: 20)

Jesus here speaks of the persecution of Christians that will come for those who follow him. Scholars almost universally see in these words the community of those who surrounded John, the apostle, reflecting on their own persecution in the late 1st century, when the Christian communities split with Jewish synagogues. This concern is resonant with many of readings in Acts that we have heard in past weeks, where the early Christians endured persecution for their faith and sought to clarify and define their identities in light of that conflict.

We see today in other regions of the world Christians who endure persecution for the sake of their faith, often suffering alongside those of other faiths—for example, Shi’ite Muslims who are the vast majority of those being persecuted in Iraq by ISIS. The Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena are a group of Dominican nuns whose challenges I’ve been following online for the year or so, since they had to flee Mosul where they once lived and prayed. The Dominicans have been in Iraq since the late 12th century, and this order of nuns first arrived in the late 19th. They have worked as nurses, running maternity hospitals and ten schools that served more than 2,500 students. (See http://www.op.org/en/content/dominican-sisters-iraq-tale-devotion-and-courage). When ISIS took over the region, the sisters initially stayed behind to pray and to serve those whom they nursed and educated. However, in August 2014 they fled amidst terrible violence. A letter circulating that I received via an email network that spread among the Dominican family describes the mass exodus of 500,000 people from Mosul, including the sisters:

“When we arrived to the intersession of Mosul-Erbil, we were shocked to see a huge mess of cars driving very chaotically to Erbil. The view was beyond describing, as words cannot fully capture it. Men, pregnant women, children, handicaps and elderly were moving toward Erbil. There were Christians, Muslims Shiites, Yezeds and Shabak; some people were on foot, some were riding trunks of pick-up, lorry trunks, and motorcycles. There are three checkpoints to arrive in Erbil. It took us five hours, from mid-night to five o’clock, to pass the first one; we reached the second one at seven o’clock and the third one at eight thirty. We arrived the convent at 9:30 exhausted emotionally, physically and mentally. What we saw was unbearable; people were suffering for no reason but because of their sect, religion and trace. We felt like we were in a nightmare wishing that someone would waken us up or that when the sun comes out it will be all over. But it was not the case, we were actually living a hard reality. It usually takes an hour and 15 minutes to drive from Karakosh to Erbil, but the day before yesterday, it took us 10 hours. It was very hot that night, and because it was very crowed many cars were taking side routes.

Upon arriving in Erbil, we saw a big number of people from doomed towns that we mentioned above; there were a lot of people in the streets in the heat of summer sun, with temperature rising over 45 degrees waiting to find a place to stay. Many family welcomed people in their homes and churches but still so many people are staying in parks even in streets and under every tree for shading. These people are way more than Erbil can house, neither can the church meet their needs. We also learned that there were about a hundred people left in Karakosh who decided not to leave and we learned from them that the ISIS entered and took some houses as a center for them. They also walked in the street saying the Muslim prayer “Allahu Akbar”.   Since there was no room for all sisters who came from Karakosh and Bartela to stay in the convent, about half of us are staying in the Chaldean Seminary for which we are really grateful. At the same time, many families preferred to stay in the garden of the convent rather then staying in the street so we provided tents for them. Our sisters from other doomed towns also left their convents and headed to other Kurdish towns. We cannot what will happen or until when people will stay like this nor what the ISIS will do to our towns, nor if we will ever be able to get back home. Everything is so unclear. The situation is extremely difficult. For the time being people have some money to support themselves, but no one knows how long they will endure with the little they have.  As for the safety, Erbil is a Kurdish city and most refugees are staying in Ankawa that is a Christian suburb and protected by Peshmerga. It is hard for people to believe that even this city is safe that’s why they are thinking more and more to leave the whole country.

You may ask what the world can do for us. We would say, stop the blood, stop the oppression, and stop violence. We are human beings here; stop making us target for your weapon. The world needs to stand as one to protect minority against the evil and injustice. People want to live normal life in peace and dignity. Please help us out to stop the evil.  Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena –Iraq ”

That was last August. In the meantime, the sisters are displaced but working in Erbil, continuing their ministries there. One, Sr. Diana Momeka, sought to come to the US but was initially denied a visa by the US administration on the ground of being a displaced person (the worry being that such people might seek to stay in the US rather than to return). (See http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/state-department-under-fire-about-iraqi-nuns-visa-denial/) Thankfully, her visa was just approved and the decision reversed, so that she may meet with the State and department and Foreign Relations committees in the US Senate and House.

I will be interested to learn what she has to say, since the voices of nuns and sisters who work “on the ground” in the Middle East are among some of the most important ones to which we can listen. Unlike the earliest persecuted Christians, who defined their identities largely through contrast to the faiths of others around them, these Dominican Christians have been working largely in solidarity with Shi’ite Muslims, Yazidis, and other now-persecuted faiths, with whom they have lived, worked, and engaged in ministries for many years. We have much to learn from these sisters who live and work alongside people of many faiths while enduring persecution.