ROME— Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York on Friday heads to Erbil, a city in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, and says he’s going to “put his teeth into his big talk” when it comes to supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
“Like everybody else, I talk a good show about supporting suffering fellow believers around the world,” Dolan told Crux on Monday. “I want to demonstrate that we mean it, to be there to answer the question, ‘Have you forgotten us?’ with a resounding ‘No, we haven’t, and it’s good for us to be here with you’.”
Dolan is travelling to Iraq on behalf of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), and as a special guest of both the local Church and the Kurdistan government.
In 2003, there were as many as 1.5 million Christians in the country. Today, those few who still survive are mostly in the Kurdistan region, once an up-and-running areas with dreams of becoming Qatar, but which in turn has become host to scores of refugees who’ve had to leave their homes, cars and belongings behind.
Christians have been in Iraq for two millennia. Yet after years of structural uncertainty, conflict, and now the rise of Islamic terrorist organizations such as ISIS, they’re on the verge of extinction.
New York’s cardinal also spoke about three things that can be done to help victims of anti-Christian persecution, and that he believes are increasingly being done by Catholics: “Advocacy, prayer and relief.”
Dolan was in Rome on Monday ahead of his trip to Iraq. He spoke to Crux on Monday about his trip and Pope Francis’ upcoming document on the family, Amoris Laetitita. The first section of this exclusive interview, in which he insists the pope’s apostolic exhortation will be about the family and not divorce, can be found here.
Crux spoke to Dolan at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Crux: Why is it important for you to go to Iraq?
Dolan: It’s important to go because the bishop there, [Archbishop Bashar Matti] Warda, asked me to come. He begged me to come, he said, “Would you come, it would me the world to us,” and when a brother bishop asks you something, you try your best to do it. I would hope that every bishop would do that.
We’re reminded constantly that as cardinals we’re supposed to have high solicitude for the needs of the Church universally, and this is certainly one example.
Number two, I’m going in my capacity as the head of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, because CNEWA has a renowned track record of helping the suffering Church, particularly in the Middle East. I’m proud of CNEWA. Every other year, I try to go on a trip with them, so I’ve been to Jordan, Lebanon, the Holy Land, and I now I want to go to Kurdistan.
Number three, it’s time to put some teeth into my big talk. Like everybody else, I talk a good show about supporting suffering fellow believers around the world. I want to demonstrate that we mean it, to be there to answer the question, “Have you forgotten us?” with a resounding no, we haven’t, and it’s good for us to be here with you.
There’s no better way in the Catholic imagination to show concern than by showing up, because that’s what the Incarnation is all about. So, I thought, I better go.
I’m looking forward to it, and I’m excited about it. Monsignor [John] Kozar [Secretary of CNEWA] has been there a number of times. He just took Cardinal [Leonardo] Sandri [Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches] there, and he told me that the esteem I have for CNEWA is going to skyrocket because you’ll see us on the ground there. It’s going to be good.
Have you been to Iraq before?
No, I’ve never been.
What can Catholics do to help persecuted Christians in Iraq and other countries? Is donating to CNEWA a way of getting involved?
Bingo! As I’m proud as I am, and as personally invested as I am in CNEWA, I should say it’s not the only option. You also have Aid to the Church in Need, Catholic Relief Services, and so on, but CNEWA does stand out because of its geographical precision and because of its nine-decade track record of bringing relief to troubled areas. So yeah, CNEWA would be one excellent way of showing solidarity.
I also think we’re also getting to the point at which we can say not only “What can we do?” but “What are we doing?” Looking around, I think there are some good signs.
First of all, advocacy from the Catholic community in the United States is starting to set off some sparks. I know we’re talking just about vocabulary here, but the whole realism about “genocide” that’s emerging is a good sign. People know it, people are starting to talk about it. It’s kind of becoming a kitchen-table topic here, among our Catholic people, and that wasn’t always the case.
I can’t go to a parish today where people aren’t talking about it, where people aren’t praying about it. The advocacy is working.
Number two, if we think prayer is just a throwaway line, then we’re the stupidest of all people, because we do happen to believe that it’s the most powerful way we can help. And I see this, I see intense prayer going on.
Bishop David [of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of New York and New England] is going to be with me. I hope to introduce him to Pope Francis. We’re going to be with Cardinal Sandri, because the cooperation we have going on right now with the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church are things our people are proud of, and they want to see them continue.
We have the Maronite patriarch coming over, and other people immediately wanted to participate. For instance, Greg Mansour [bishop of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn] came to me and asked, “Can we do something?”
The inter-faith community in New York will rally to help out. I’m even talking about our Jewish brothers and sisters here, who, by the way, have told me over and over that “it’s time you Catholics started acting like us Jews” in the sense of standing up against persecution. In New York they’re saying, “How can we help you”
That’s what people mean when they talk about the ecumenism of martyrdom.
The third avenue would be direct help, just small things. I was just in the St. Joseph Seminary [the major seminary of the Archdiocese of New York]. Every Lent they have a specific cause for their Lenten almsgiving. What was it this year? CNEWA. The whole community rallied behind it, and they’ve entrusted me to bring the funds they raised on this trip.
So there’s a growing consciousness about the importance of advocacy, prayer and relief.
Do we need a standard, public liturgical prayer for the persecuted Christians?
Absolutely. The U.S. bishops, in fact, have spoken about an international version of our “Fortnight of Freedom”, where they would begin to have a period of more intense prayer with prescribed prayers for every parish. I think we need that.
Growing up as a Catholic in the 1950s and 60s, awareness of the plight of Christians living behind the Iron Curtain was a daily thing. It’d be in our religion classes, in our prayer books, our daily prayers for the “conversion of Russia,” which we knew meant conversion from Communism and atheism.
I think that’s what we need to regenerate right now.
What kind of interest have you found in the trip?
What I found to be very good was the high interest of the American government. I called some people, and then they started calling some other people. I’m taking about people from the White House and from Congress, who called and said, “We’re glad you’re going, keep us posted,” and also volunteered to alert the American consulate there.
It’s always sensitive when an American goes [to Iraq], but I’m not going as an American, I’m going as a pastor. They also asked if I would feel better with American protection, and I said that would be an insult to the local authorities, who have already assured Monsignor Kozar that I would be protected. They said fine, the Kurds have good security arrangements.
I thought it was great to see the eagerness of the interest of the American government in the trip, and their eagerness to hear about it when I come back.
On Sunday, Pope Francis asked Catholic churches in Europe to take up a collection on April 24 to bring humanitarian support to Ukraine. Would you like see churches in the United States also joining that collection?
It would be my hope [they will do so], and I would pass that on, saying, “Look what the churches in Europe are doing.”