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March, 2018
Volume 44, Number 1
31 October 2017
Oscar Durand, Catholic News Service

Sisters Irene, Catherine and Veronica, members of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, are pictured at their residence at La Paix Hospital in Istanbul. (photo: CNS/Oscar Durand)

At 10 a.m., the Rev. Dominic Ko walked to the altar to begin Mass in Korean, his native tongue.

“Amen,” replied the 30 people in attendance, all of them also Korean. The Church of St. Mary Draperis is in the heart of Istanbul, where the Franciscan Father Dominic landed 10 years ago to tend to the country’s Korean community. He is the only Korean priest in Turkey but, as a religious from a foreign country, he is not alone. He is one of the 125 Latin-rite Catholic religious from more than 20 nations. It is a tiny yet very diverse community for a country with very few Latin Catholics. Accurate numbers are not available, although the Istanbul Vicariate estimates they number about 5,000; Eastern Catholics number about 20,000.

“This place is very important in Christianity, a Christian treasure; therefore, we have to maintain this place,” said Father Dominic, who comes to Istanbul every week to celebrate Mass. He lives south of Istanbul, near the ancient city of Ephesus.

Turkey is a storied area in the history of Christianity. Early church communities began here and later expanded to the rest of the world. St. Paul traversed the region during his missionary journeys.

Much has changed since then. Today, the majority of Turkey’s 80 million inhabitants are Muslim. The number of Christians is estimated at about 100,000.

“Because there are Catholics present, we (the religious orders) are present,” said Bishop Ruben Tierrablanca Gonzalez, apostolic vicar of Istanbul. Bishop Tierrablanca, who is originally from Mexico, is a Franciscan friar; his order has been in Turkey since the 13th century.

Bishop Tierrablanca said some of the Latin Catholic religious orders currently active in Turkey put down roots many years ago. Today, despite the modest number of Catholics, they continue their mission.

Less than three miles from the church of St. Mary Draperis is the oldest psychiatric hospital in Turkey, Hospital La Paix (Peace Hospital), owned by the French Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent of Paul.

During the Crimean War, France and the Ottoman Empire asked the Daughters of Charity to help treat wounded troops. The order responded by sending a contingent of 255 sisters. About 100 of them died during their service.

After the war ended in 1856, Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid wanted to thank the sisters for their contribution and offered them titles and medals of honor. The sisters refused and requested instead land to build a place where they could continue their charism of serving the poor. The sultan accepted and, two years later, Hospital La Paix opened its doors.

The Daughters of Charity no longer run the day-to-day operations, although they are still present at the hospital. The five sisters come from Italy, France, Greece, Slovenia and Vietnam.

“When I arrived here five years ago, I had never seen such a diversity to express the love of Christ,” said French Sister Catherine, head of the community of sisters at the hospital. Turkey is her first experience living in a country other than her own.

“It is important to show this diversity, which proves that we can live together, like brothers and sisters, doing well to each other,” she said.

Latin-rite Catholics in Turkey can attend Mass in English, Italian, French, Turkish, Korean, German and Spanish. Sometimes the Mass is only in one of these languages; sometimes it is a combination.

Back at St. Mary Draperis, as the Korean Mass ended and Father Dominic and the Korean community moved to another room to mingle, a new crowd took its place. Father Eleuthere Makuta of Congo arrived to celebrate Mass in English, French and Italian.

The Mass began and the choir, made up of Congolese, sang in French, accompanied by musicians on a keyboard and two drums.

Among the about 40 people attending Mass was Bing Giducos, who has been living in Turkey for nine years.

“It is beautiful, the joy of praying in my own language. It is as if I am one with God,” she said.

28 November 2016
Oscar Durand, Catholic News Service

The Rev. Remzi Diril, also known as Father Adday, celebrates the liturgy at an apartment in Kirsehir, Turkey, on 10 November. (photo: CNS/Oscar Durand)

Holding a golden chalice and paten with a single hand, Father Remzi Diril slowly moved from one person to another, distributing the Eucharist. He reached for a consecrated host, dipped it in the chalice, and gave it to a woman in her 40s, whose head was covered with a veil.

With chants in the background and incense filling the air, the moment inspired reverence. Yet the liturgy was not in a church; it was in an apartment in Kirsehir, a small, conservative city in the heart of Turkey, a Muslim-majority country.

Being the only Chaldean Catholic priest in charge of pastoral work in Turkey, Father Adday, as he is known, has become a true itinerant priest, a road warrior who, each year, logs thousands of miles tending his flock, the community of Iraqi Christian refugees in Turkey. Their exact number is unknown, but it is estimated to be 40,000.

Since he was ordained two years ago, Father Adday, 34, has baptized more than 200 children, married more than 20 couples and administered the Anointing of the Sick to more than 30 people. He also is on his fifth suitcase.

“So far this year we have celebrated first Communion for more than 100 children. And last year it was more than 150,” he said.

On a recent hourlong flight from his base in Istanbul to Nevsehir, a city in central Turkey, Father Adday sat comfortably in the emergency exit row of a plane from a low-cost airline.

“There is more legroom here,” Father Adday said; his eyes locked on the airline’s magazine crossword.

The trip’s cost is an important factor considering that the church is not able to reimburse his expenses. That only happens when there is an official function or religious festival. More often it is the priest, or the families he visits, who pay for the trip.

“It is easier for them to help me with my travel expenses than to pay, for a family of 10, for a trip to Istanbul," Father Adday explained.

Once he arrives at his destination, the priest relies on a support network who connects him to the local community of Iraqi Christians.

From Nevsehir Father Adday took a 60-mile bus ride to Kirsehir, where he met Adnan Barbar and his wife, Faten Somo. This was the priest's eight time in the city.

“This is my family in Kirsehir. In every city, I have a family. Sometimes more than one,” he said.

The couple acts as Father Adday’s local liaison. After welcoming the priest to their apartment with the customary tea and sweets, Barbar and Somo got on their cellphones. They were familiar with the city’s 225 Iraqi Christian families, and they were assembling the priest’s itinerary.

This area of Turkey is a pivotal place in the history of Christianity. Early Christians came here escaping persecution in the Roman Empire. Remains of the churches they built can still be visited today. However, no Catholic churches function in this part of the country. And when Father Adday visits, Mass is celebrated in homes, as the early Christians also did.

Celebrating the liturgy in a public hall would allow more people to attend, but renting a hall costs about $900, which can be better spent traveling to visit more families.

On average, 10 families are invited to each Mass, and 30 people attend. This allows for an experience different from the one felt in a church.

“A Mass in a house is more like a family. Father and children sharing the glory of God,” Father Adday said. “I would say it is like watching a film in a movie theater versus watching it at home with your family.”

After the liturgy, the priest visited Marta Kiryakos, a woman from Bartella, Iraq, suffering from cancer. Her daughter, Nadira, opened the door of the bedroom, crying, worried about her mother's health. Kiryakos' condition is delicate, and the priest prayed for several minutes as he anointed her temples and forehead with oils.

Many of the people Father Adday visits have spent several years in Turkey, waiting for an answer to their asylum applications to countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States. The process is long, and this time in limbo has caused many people physical and psychological problems.

“People need spiritual help. They need a priest. They want the church with them. I can’t give them material things, but I can give them my time and give them hope,” the priest said.

Father Adday and the Iraqi refugees he serves are Assyrian, an ethnic group from the Middle East. Their language — Assyrian — is related to the language Jesus spoke, Aramaic.

But their connection is not only the ethnic group and language. When Father Adday was a child, his village in southeast Turkey was burned during the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. He and his family had to move to Istanbul.

That is another reason that keeps Father Adday on the road with the people.

“When you leave your sheep in the mountain, you don’t know what will happen to them. But when you are with them it is different. You can show them where the water is; where there is a good place to stay. They are like children waiting for their father,” he said.

After two intense days and one night in Kirsehir, Father Adday prepared to return to Istanbul. He celebrated five liturgies and visited multiple families, but he said he was not tired.

“I hope that my visits allow them to become more spiritual and in touch with the church, and to refresh their belief in Jesus. Every Christian needs to refresh his spiritual life,” he said.

“I also hope to give them hope and remind them ... that God makes miracles, and for that they need to believe. I tell them let God do the working for you. He is our Father and he wants the best for you,” Father Adday said.

19 October 2016
Oscar Durand, Catholic News Service

Basima Kamil, right, a refugee from Iraq who teaches at the Don Bosco Youth Center in Istanbul, spends time during a break on 3 October at the school office and teacher's room with colleagues, Wafa Toma and Dina Jouna. Kamil has been in Turkey since December 2012, waiting for an answer to her relocation application to Canada. (photo: CNS/Oscar Durand)

Yako Hanna, 36, always keeps an eye on his phone waiting for a call that would change his life.

“Anytime it rings, you think it is the U.N., so you have to be careful. Even if you go to the bathroom, you have to take your mobile with you,” Hanna said, referring to the call he might receive from the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, which is handling his resettlement application to Australia, where he has relatives.

Hanna is one of the thousands of Iraqi Christians that are in Turkey waiting, from a few months to a few years, for an answer to their resettlement applications to Western countries. They are waiting for an appointment or a visa, a document that will allow them to restart their lives in a new country. And not knowing when that will happen is leading them to live a life in limbo.

Hanna grew up in a Chaldean Catholic family in the al-Dora district of Baghdad. The memories from his childhood include summer picnics, soccer games and other activities organized by his neighborhood church, St. Jacob.

Starting in 2004, car bombs, killings and attacks on Christians in Iraq become common. In 2007, St. Jacob — the church Hanna had attended for 22 years — was attacked, marking the beginning of his odyssey. He moved to a safer neighborhood in Baghdad and, when the situation worsened there as well, he fled to Tel Kaif in northern Iraq, just north of Mosul. In 2014, the Islamic State group attacked the town, and Hanna fled to Turkey.

Once in Turkey, Hanna registered with UNHCR and the Turkish government. Under Turkish law, only asylum seekers from Europe qualify for refugee status. Iraqis are eligible to receive what is called an “international protection” status, which allows them to stay in Turkey as they wait for resettlement to a third country. Being resettled is not easy or quick.

According to UNHCR, in 2015, there were more than 7,500 people resettled out of Turkey; more than 6,400 were from countries other than Syria. Turkey hosts more than 3 million refugees; about 400,000 are non-Syrians. Although the exact number of Iraqi Christians in Turkey is unknown, it is estimated that there are at least 40,000. For Hanna, the process to officially become a refugee and seek resettlement involved paperwork, travel and multiple interviews. His file was finally completed July 21, two years after he landed in Turkey.

“The first year was the worst year of my life. My future was unknown. What would I do for work? What would happen when I face a problem here? So many strange thoughts. I cried many times. I had to start not from zero but from under zero,” Hanna said.

He said he hopes that the next time the phone rings, it is a call with a positive answer to his case.

“I think it will be no less than six months. If they told me four months, it would be a miracle. I cannot guess,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hanna has found a temporary home with the Iraqi Catholic community in Istanbul. He keeps busy teaching English to refugee children, mostly from Iraq and Syria, at the Don Bosco Youth Center in Istanbul. Most of the other instructors are also from Iraq.

Basima Kamil, 42, also teaches English at the center. She is from Baghdad and has lived in Istanbul with her husband and four children since December 2012. With violence and threats toward Christians all around them, they felt they had no other option but to leave Iraq.

Once in Istanbul, Kamil and her family followed the resettlement process that is known to the Iraqi refugee community. Their first interview with UNHCR was in September 2014, almost two years after they landed in Istanbul.

When they met with Canadian officials, Kamil felt closer to her dream of finding a safe home for her family. After that interview in October 2015, Kamil was told that the next time she would be contacted, it would be for her to move to Canada. “And since then, we are waiting,” Kamil said.

Kamil worries about her children’s education. They are between 15 and 22 and she believes that, as years pass by, so do their opportunities.

“I worry about their studies. I want them to continue studying, but I am afraid that they won’t,” Kamil said.

Kamil said she is determined to continue moving ahead, even if her application is denied.

“I cannot go back to Iraq. Now there are even fewer Christians. And I have daughters, it is more difficult for them,” Kamil said.

Hanna also said he does not contemplate giving up if his resettlement application is rejected. But in the meantime, he is wasting no time. While not teaching at the Don Bosco Youth Center, he is taking Turkish lessons and is looking for a school to learn to become a barber.

“The more difficult thing is keep waiting and postponing your dreams. Until when? You don’t know. But day by day, you get used to,” Hanna said.