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Apr. 16, 2018

Archdiocese of Hartford joins Knights of Columbus in support of persecuted Christians in Middle East

Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of Hartford celebrates a Mass for persecuted Christians in the Middle East on April 15 at St. Mary Church in New Haven. At left is Bishop Bawai Soro, Chaldean Catholic bishop of Canada. (Photos by Aaron Joseph)

NEW HAVEN — As a sign of solidarity with religious minorities who have been victims of ISIS-led genocide, Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of Hartford celebrated a Mass for persecuted Middle Eastern Christians on April 15 at St. Mary Church.

He welcomed Bishop Bawai Soro, Chaldean Catholic bishop of Canada and a native of Iraq, who delivered the homily and also proclaimed the Gospel in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

Seated in the panel during the question-and-answer session that followed the Mass are, from left, Dominican Father John Paul Walker, pastor of St. Mary Church; Archbishop Blair; Bishop Soro; Stephen Rasche, counsel to the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese in Erbil, Iraq; and Andrew Walther, vice president for communications and planning for the Knights of Columbus.During the Mass, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Hartford and the Knights of Columbus, the two bishops encouraged the large gathering of the faithful to pray for Christians throughout the world who are under constant threat of losing their homelands and their very lives if they do not renounce Christ.

In his homily and remarks at a reception following the Mass, Bishop Soro was effusive in expressing his appreciation to the Knights and Catholics in the archdiocese for their outpouring of support.

“These persecuted Christians of Iraq and Syria have not stopped giving thanks to God for your love and solidarity,” he said. “We thank you for helping us carry our cross” for the persecuted and displaced … ”simply because we believe in Christ.”

Archbishop Blair recognized especially students from the nine high schools in the archdiocese, who, in recent months, have been part of an archdiocese-wide effort to learn about the genocide in Iraq and Syria. Students in each school prayed for a “sister town” they adopted in the region; held assemblies about the persecution and rebuilding efforts in the ancient cities and sold “solidarity crosses” for $10 that were made in the Middle East.

During the Offertory, students presented the archbishop with proceeds from the sale of the olive wood crosses supplied by the Knights of Columbus that will be sent to the ‘sister towns’ to help in rebuilding efforts.

The Knights are hopeful that the program “will be the first of many across the U.S. and Canada,” according to a statement from Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson. The Knights estimate that about $70 will feed a displaced family for a month in Iraq; and about $2,000 will help reconstruct a family’s home.

As part of the high school campaign, Archbishop Blair delivered a You Tube webcast shown in the schools in which he explained the genocide of Christians by ISIS that has resulted in deaths and the disappearance of Christian from their homelands.

He noted that Christians in Iraq and Syria are among the oldest Christian communities in the world; but the number of Christians in Iraq alone has fallen from 1.5 million before 2003 to only 200,000 today. In Syria, the number of Christians has declined by 70 percent, according to the Knights of Columbus.

"Christians persecuted by ISIS in Iraq and Syria were given the choice of renouncing their faith, fleeing or being killed,” he stated. “The fact that the overwhelming majority kept their faith, even though it meant that they had to leave what were often comfortable middle class lives is a great witness to the power of their faith."

People listen to the panel members.During a reception and question and answer session held after the Mass, questions were fielded by Archbishop Blair; Bishop Soro; Andrew Walther, vice president for communications and planning for the Knights, and Stephen Rasche, counsel to the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese in Erbil, Iraq.

The Knights of Columbus has played an active role in raising awareness about the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Since 2014, its Christian Refugee Relief Fund has committed more than $18 million to aid persecuted Christians in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding region with food, shelter, education, medicine and rebuilding. A current project underway is the resettlement of the town of Karamles in Nineveh (Iraq).

The international fraternal organization has also advocated for U.S. government relief funds to be directed to communities targeted for genocide by ISIS; and in 2016, the Knights led a major advocacy and publicity campaign in support of the U.S. congressional and state department declarations of genocide.

Bishop Soros has been an outspoken opponent of the persecution of Christians in his native Iraq, and has applauded the perseverance of its people.

In 2017, he was appointed bishop of the Chaldean Eparchy of Mar Addai of Toronto serving 30,000 Chaldean Catholics. Born in Kirkuk, Iraq, he was baptized into the Assyrian Church of the East before his family emigrated to Lebanon and later to the United States in 1976.

He holds a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America and a doctorate from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. In 2008, he and nearly 1,000 families of his church were received into communion with the Catholic Church through the Chaldean Catholic Church--the Catholic analogue to the Syrian Church of the East that uses the East Syrian rite.

The Chaldean Catholic Church has over 600,000 members with about 45 percent residing in the Middle East. Many have emigrated to other nations as a result of the violence.