FANAR, Lebanon — 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.”
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.