Published Sunday, August 24, 2008 in The Register-Guard.
(AMMAN, JORDAN) Father Raymond Moussalli has grown accustomed to interruptions. When you’re the pastor responsible for a flock of 10,000, you learn to drop what you’re doing when somebody in need arrives at your door. Father Raymond has agreed to meet us in his basement office next to the small church where he offers mass every day. Sixty plastic patio chairs fill the sanctuary and tell the life of a pastor to refugees.
How many of his parishioners are refugees? “All of them. This church is only for refugees. There are 10,000 Iraqi Chaldean Christians, all refugees. This is their church.” Iraq has more than 4 million displaced people, half inside its borders and half spilled into the neighboring countries. Of those 4 million-plus Iraqis, 500,000 are Christians.
Father Raymond came to Amman from Syria in 2002, opened this center, and set about his work. He describes that work in three points, like any good sermon.
“First must come education,” Moussalli says. The United Nations this year began providing money for education, and Jordan responded by opening their schools for the first time. Moussalli hates to admit it, but money is a motivator in every direction. Governments respond to money. So do refugees. Many cannot leave Jordan only because the state imposes a fine for their being in Jordan. The fine accumulates for their entire stay, but isn’t collected until they are ready to leave. It comes to about $2 per day, every day.
“Second is health,” Moussalli continues. Health care is also not provided for refugees, but if the U.N. supported it as it now supports education, Moussalli is confident the Jordanian authorities will respond in like manner. But the medical needs are not just for the body. They extend to the mind and the spirit. When families are split up and people are asked to live for long periods without hope, the pain can become unbearable.
Before he can get to his third point, two women appear at his door, weeping. He motions with his head for the women to enter. When interruptions are normal, you don’t apologize. He stays at his desk, rung on all sides with visitors, but focuses his attention on the woman sobbing in front of him. He scribbles some notes so he can go meet the women in their home tomorrow.
One woman just received word that her brother was killed in Iraq yesterday. She has her sister beside her and her niece is waiting outside. None of them know how to help this woman with her loss, but for Father Raymond, it’s distressingly familiar. Another day at the office. He rises to comfort her and promises to see her more tomorrow.
Back to the sermon’s third point. “Immigration. The rules are too arbitrary.” Moussalli wonders why the authorities never ask his advice. “I know these people. I’ve been in their homes. But the moniters have their own ways. And we don’t understand them.” The United Nations has let it be known they cannot protect refugees if they are working illegally. But all the U.N. officers are Jordanian and Muslim, so Iraqi Christians wonder whether they will be treated fairly. Moussalli’s assistant has been waiting for help for three years. He left Iraq after he was threatened by the Muslim authorities because he had done translating work for a computer contractor.
Father Raymond follows his assistant’s point. “Iraqis have used the U.S. invasion to persecute Christians. Muslim leaders see the invasion as another Christian crusade. When we ask for help, they refuse. They tell us ‘your cousin is coming.’ They see the United States as Christians who will come and help the Christians first.” Father Raymond shakes his head.
Another interruption appears at the door — this time a stoic man carrying a case. His eyes look swollen, as if he did his crying before he arrived. He takes a seat with the circle of visitors. Father Raymond invites him to tell his story. He consents.
His wife’s brother was beheaded in Iraq two years ago, but nobody has yet told her. She knows only that he’s missing. Her brother was a director of a bank — a typical target for kidnapping or assassination. But word came yesterday that another brother has now been killed.
The unspoken word is almost audible. Now that a second brother has been killed, how to tell the news of the first? Both at once? One at a time? Which first?
This time Father Raymond interrupts the interruption. “We’re having 23 First Communions this Sunday. You can see the children’s pictures on my door. They are decorated as apples on the tree. There’s always hope.”
He turns his attention from the church to the world, but still thinking about hope. “We don’t understand about this war. We need hope. But from where?”
Don Kahle (email@example.com) is chronicling his excursion through the Middle East almost daily for the next couple of weeks, exclusively for The Register-Guard. Photos of Father Raymond and his First Communion apple tree poster are posted on his blog at www.dksez.com.