We got some insight of our own several weeks ago, when we had a chance to talk with some nuns from Iraq, Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena. They were in the United States to meet with political and religious leaders around the country in an effort to raise awareness and raise funds for the remarkable work that they do.
Please tell us about your ministry in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003.
Sister Maria Hanna: When the bombs started falling in Baghdad and people started to flee, we opened our convents to families. We gave people a place to stay. Or we connected them with families who could shelter them for a night. We did not wait for people to come to us. We went to locations where people congregated and asked them if they needed anything that we could provide.
We gathered an organization of young adults who went door to door to beg for food and other things to help families in need. Our sisters baked bread every day so people at least had bread to survive.
When families lost someone to violence or kidnapping, the sisters stayed with them, accompanied them, let them know we were there for them.
Years ago, the government nationalized our Catholic schools. After the regime fell, the government gave the buildings back to us. We let displaced families stay in the schools, too. We made sure people had the necessities to live. Our pantries were always empty, because we always gave everything away.
Early in the crisis, especially in 2003 and 2004, most of Iraq’s hospitals closed down. We run Al-Hayat Hospital in Baghdad, and we stayed opened. We stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We stayed open for the people.
From accompanying displaced families and seeing their needs, we saw that children had no place to go, so we opened kindergartens. We rented houses to give children a safe place to play.
We also have our orphanages. One used to be in Baghdad, in a very dangerous zone, so we moved it to a village nearby. It is called the Beatitude House. This year, we are planning to open a new orphanage for boys with the help of the American Embassy. One of our biggest hopes is to build another hospital, too.
You’re also working night and day to bolster the Christian presence in Iraq.
Sister Maria: Most of our work is pastoral — not schools and hospitals. Every year, we prepare about 1,600 boys and girls to receive Communion. Our sisters do this in remote areas where there is no priest. This week and last, 667 children received First Communion in one village, because of our pastoral ministry.
We also do Gospel sharing with families. We gather a few families together and we share the Gospel with one another. Our sisters teach Catechism, too. We also run activities with the Dominican Third Order, lay people. In one town, we have about 180 lay people of different ages who help the local parish with whatever is needed. So, you can tell we’re everywhere.
Your community lost its mother house to the violence.
Sister Diana Moneka: Yes, it was bombed several times. But God was with us. When they bombed our mother house the first time, the missile fell on a bedroom where four sisters were sleeping. It was 1:30 a.m. They couldn’t escape. Pressure from the fire prevented them from opening the door. A sister sleeping down the hall eventually got them out. The sisters were so shocked, but after a while they felt the presence of God. They realized, “We’re still alive because of God.”