Pope speaks out on Mideast violence; Phoenix stands in solidarity with Christians fleeing persecution

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and Msgr. Felix Shabi, Corbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Vicariate of Arizona, concelebrated Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish Oct. 19, the day of the Chaldean festival
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and Msgr. Felix Shabi, Corbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Vicariate of Arizona, concelebrated Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish Oct. 19, the day of the Chaldean festival

The Middle East, especially Iraq and Syria, are experiencing “terrorism of previously unimaginable proportions” in which the perpetrators seem to have absolutely no regard for the value of human life, Pope Francis said Oct. 20.

In Phoenix, Catholics have embraced the growing community of Christians who have fled the ongoing violence and persecution in Iraq. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix concelebrated a Chaldean Rite Mass Oct. 19 in a show of solidarity with 1,000 Chaldean Catholic families who reside in the area. The church was packed with both Latin Rite and Chaldeans.

“The beauty of the Chaldean Rite — as well as the Melkite, Maronite and other Eastern Rites — reflects the beauty of God, Bishop Olmsted said. “Your presence here in our diocese enriches us.”

Msgr. Felix Shabi, corbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Vicariate of Arizona, thanked Bishop Olmsted and Fr. Stephen Kunkel, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, for hosting the Mass and festival. It was St. Thomas, Msgr. Shabi noted, who brought Christianity to Mesopotamia, which includes modern-day Iraq. “It is a blessing and a joy that we are all gathered here,” Msgr. Shabi said. “We are brothers in the faith.”

Latin Rite Catholics who attended the Mass said they were surprised that there was such a large Chaldean Catholic presence in the area.

Matt McKinley, pushing a stroller with his young son, said he came to show his support for the Chaldean community. Marcy, his mother-in-law, was on crutches but stood under a beating sun just outside the church after Mass.

“I’ve been so torn up about the Church in Iraq,” Marcy said. “The persecuted Church around the world — we need to help them in some way.”

The Oct. 19 festival featured traditional Chaldean food and dancing.
The Oct. 19 festival featured traditional Chaldean music, food and dancing. More than 1,000 people participated in the liturgy and festival.

With Middle Eastern music pulsating and participants joining hands to dance, it was a festive atmosphere at the celebration afterwards. The aroma of gyros, shwarma and baklava tantalized while Raimundo Castro and his fellow Knights of Columbus from St. Thomas the Apostle, handed out soda and bottles of water. Castro said he was touched by the liturgy, largely chanted in Aramaic.

“It brought me to tears,” said Raimondo Castro. “It was very moving.”

As ISIS continues to devastate Iraq and Syria, the Church has sought to draw attention to the plight of the persecuted Christians, chased from Mosul and the surrounding villages in August.

The pope met Oct. 20 with cardinals gathered for an ordinary public consistory to approve the canonization of new saints, and to discuss the current situation in the Middle East.

“We are witnessing a phenomenon of terrorism of previously unimaginable proportions. Many of our brothers and sisters are persecuted and have had to leave their homes, in a brutal manner, too,” the pope said. “This unjust situation demands, beyond our constant prayers, an adequate response from the part of the international community as well,” he said.

Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service, contributed to this story.