Peace, Peace, Peace!  Thank you!  God be with you!.  With these words, Pope Francis ended the mass in Erbil, his last major public event during his visit to Iraq.  Energy and emotion already filled the stadium, and when he ended his remarks with these Arabic words, we all erupted in joy! Francis, preaching on the “cleaning of the Temple” invited the people of Iraq, and the international community to a cleansing of return and rebuilding: To cleanse our hearts, we need to dirty our hands, to feel accountable and not to simply look on as our brothers and sisters are suffering. How do we purify our hearts? By our own efforts, we cannot; we need Jesus. He has the power to conquer our evils, to heal our diseases, to rebuild the temple of our heart. This theme of rebuilding, and more specifically of right return, was central in Francis’ many public events.  In every event, he spoke of the need to reconciliation, of return to right relationship.   Speaking with JRS staff in Iraq, Muslim, Ezidi (Yezidi) and Christian alike, I was struck by the impact of his visit.  That he visited was itself impressive.  However, they were equally impressed with what he said.  In a world that has become divided by the simplistic dualisms of opposition, retaliation and shortsighted “wins”, Francis spoke of murky fraternity – to be sisters and brothers to each other.  In those relationships we do not look to win the other to our side, we seek to accompany one another in our messiness.  [Jesus] liberates us from the narrow and divisive notions of family, faith and community that divide, oppose and exclude, so that we can build a Church and a society open to everyone and concerned for our brothers and sisters in greatest need. At the same time, he strengthens us to resist the temptation to seek revenge, which only plunges us into a spiral of endless retaliation. In the power of the Holy Spirit, he sends us forth, not as proselytizers, but as missionary disciples, men and women called to testify to the life-changing power of the Gospel. This Lent, the image of “return” has been central to my prayer.  I find myself yearning for a return to life before the pandemic, for a return to normalcy, to hugs and human contact.  However, Francis has insisted that this return be something deeper, a return to right relationship, not a simple return to the unjust structures that existed before the pandemic.  This message of reconciliation has deep resonance in Iraq.  However, it is a prophetic reminder to all.   Our missionary call is to return to right relationship and deepen the bonds of human fraternity. Photo 1: Fr Joseph Cassar SJ (JRS, Iraq Country Director) greeting Pope Francis after the mass.  Photo 2: After the mass (l to r) Marc Stephan Giese SJ (Jesuit Community Amman, Jordan); Michael Zammit SJ (Provincial, Jesuits of the Near East); Peter Balleis SJ (Jesuit Worldwide Learning); Daniel Corrou SJ (JRS Middle East); Joe Cassar SJ (JRS Iraq); Waseem Dinha (JRS Iraq). Note: Iraq is now part of the Jesuit Province of the Near East.  Jesuit Refugee Service and Jesuit Worldwide Learning both operate in Iraq.   Based in Erbil since 2015, Fr. Joe Cassar SJ has been leading the JRS Iraq response to the crisis caused by ISIS.  JRS Iraq accompanies tens of thousands of people, Muslims, Yezidis, and Christians in Iraq.  For more information, see the link below. https://jrs.net/en/country/iraq/
Driven by poverty and conflict in their homelands, some 250,000 people from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan have immigrated to Lebanon. Nearly 95 percent of them are women, and most arrive having been recruited by Lebanese agencies that contract domestic workers in African and Asian countries. Migrant workers in Lebanon are employed under the kafala (sponsorship) system, which links a worker’s legal status to their employer. Because they are not Lebanese nationals, they are not protected under the country’s labor laws. Afro-Asian Migrant Centre On Sundays, many of them gather at the Jesuit-run St. Joseph’s Church, and afterward go upstairs to the Afro-Asian Migrant Centre to meet up with their friends. There they spend their day together, having fun, sharing a meal and being spiritually nourished in their common Catholic faith. The Centre was established at St. Joseph’s in 2000, by an American Jesuit, the Rev. Martin McDermott, now 86. He has been working with migrants since the early 1980’s, in partnership with a Dutch Jesuit, the Rev. Theo Vlught, who recently returned to his homeland at the age of 90 and deceased on January 3th. But Father McDermott is not working alone in providing pastoral care to migrants. The Jesuit-run Centre he founded forms part of a pastoral care committee, established by the Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of Lebanon, for migrants throughout the country. The charity of the Catholic churches in Lebanon, Caritas Lebanon, operates safe houses and shelters for migrants in distress. And since September 2017, the American Jesuit has been joined in his work at St. Joseph’s by the Rev. Henry Ponce, S.J. — the first time the Jesuit Province of the Philippines sent one of their own priests to the Middle East. Father Ponce, 45, began his Lebanon mission as an assistant to Father McDermott, who had been serving as director of the Afro-Asian Migrant Centre. But after one year, the provincial of the Jesuits in Lebanon switched the roles of the two. Father McDermott gladly accepted, Father Ponce recalls, and told the Filipino priest, “you’re the boss now.” “I’m only 86. Thank God, I’m in good health. I’ve slowed down, but I can still do the job of taking care of the migrants easily. I’m glad the work has a future, with Father Ponce here,” Father McDermott says. Together, and in their own special way, the two priests each have a great heart for their mission, keeping migrants on the path of their Catholic faith and giving them an outlook of hope, regardless of their circumstances.
Aftermath of the Explosion in Beirut Two weeks after the Beirut explosion, following a long day of home visits to residents still shook by the blast, volunteers from a network of Lebanese university ministries processed through the rubbled streets with the Blessed Sacrament. Locals joined in. Ronney el Gemayel SJ, national director of this network, recalls thinking: -“The presence of Christ is here…in the middle of all of this absurdity.”- The procession ended with a prayer at a damaged Jesuit school, where the Gospel encounter of Jesus with Zaccheus was proclaimed. Zaccheus, like the crowds of Jericho, went seeking Jesus as he passed through. One month now after the blast, the Jesuits in Beirut, far from pretending to play Jesus’ role in this story, still attentively seek Jesus with and among the crowds, discerning how best to follow. From the economic crisis, its cries for reform, and the local threats of the COVID-19 pandemic to the tragic explosion of August 4, Jesuit institutions have walked with the Lebanese people every step of the way through this year’s distress, creatively responding at each junction. Gemayel calls this response a spirituality “aux yeux ouverts;” Dan Corrou SJ, director of Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) Middle East and North Africa, stresses the need to always “start from reality.” Formed in Ignatian spirituality, formed in the Gospel message of Matthew 25, Jesuit collaborators see this reality as the concrete sufferings, needs, and longings of their neighbours. “I was hungry and you gave me food.”- Since the pressures of the economic crisis, the Centre de Jeunesse Catholique (CJC) has stepped up to meet local alimentary needs. Tireless volunteers continue preparing hundreds of meals and food boxes each week for distribution. In other neighborhoods, JRS and the Afro-Asian Migrant Center continue to provide family food baskets – especially attentive to the particular vulnerability of migrants at this time. “I was in prison and you visited me.”- Beyond the needs assessments conducted door-to-door by NGOs, Jesuit collaborators recognized a need for more – visits that give survivors a space to speak freely from interior prisons of trauma, rage, and mourning. University campus ministries, now planning their 6th day of visits, have visited hundreds of apartments in affected areas, each day beginning with formation in active listening and ending with reflection. Already long committed to such home visits in their sphere, JRS recently recruited professionals to intensify efforts and imagine how best to create structures for longer-term, more sustainable community support programs. Jesuit director of the CJC, Gabriel Khairallah, celebrated the “missionary identity” of these Ignatian works that have stepped up to assemble, form and mobilize volunteers in the absence of state leadership. -“To overcome despair it takes real work, courage, resilience,”- shared Corrou: -“None of us can do that alone… we must hold it together, share it together and move through it together.”- As healing, building and rebuilding continue, we continue in this spirit – not only “together” in these emerging links of solidarity, but “together” with a God already at work in the streets.” Pictures: Fr. Ronney el Gemayel in the Eucharistic procession - JRS Home visit team - Fr. Gabriel Khairallah during a home visit
In the days and weeks after the massive explosion of August 4, 2020, the people of Beirut have been sharing stories. There has been a collective need to speak about this horrifying experience, and to feel the solidarity that comes with that sharing.  We now count 178 dead, and over 6,000 wounded.  There are over 300,000 people whose housing is now insecure as a result of this one explosion.  We are happy to report that all the Jesuits are safe.  Many had cuts and scrapes from broken glass, and one bad fall, but there were no major injuries, thanks be to God.  "Bibliothèque Orientale" Unfortunately, several people who were part of the Ignatian family in Lebanon have died as a result of this tragedy.  Alumni of our schools and University, members of Ignatian groups, and beneficiaries of JRS, this explosion did not discriminate. Please keep them all in your prayers. All the Jesuit works of Beirut were severely damaged: St. Joseph Church, University St. Joseph, the Bibliothèque Orientale and Hôtel Dieu Hospital as well as the Jesuit communities of St. Joseph, St. Ignace, and St. Gregoire.   Each of them was shattered.  The rebuilding process will be long and difficult, and we  will need to rely on friends to help us rebuild.  JRS Damascus sends a note of solidarity to the people of Beirut. All the Jesuits in Beirut are grateful for the concern and solidarity that so many have demonstrated.  In this difficult time, it is good to know that we are not alone.  The reaction to this tragedy has been wonderful to experience.  While there is tremendous anger at the government and concern about the future of the country, thousands of people have been out in the neighborhoods cleaning up the debris, feeding the hungry, and trying to put some order in this chaos.  Perhaps it is part of the tragic beauty of Beirut that the city knows how to clean up well.  University St. Joseph and Scouts clean up a building after the explosion. It has been especially beautiful to see the Ignatian family rallying to respond.  Two days after the blast, St. Joseph Church was filled with Scouts and Offre Joie groups, preparing meals to distribute, and cleaning the church and offices.  Like benevolent locusts, they removed every piece of glass or dust, and returned the building to order.   In the weeks after the explosion, however, we are beginning to face the larger difficulties.  After the cleanup, we can now assess the very real structural damages to buildings.   More profound even than those damages, however, are the psychological and spiritual wounds caused by this. Those will take far more than groups of energetic young people. Students from University St. Joseph on a clean up team in Gemmayze, Beirut. My own prayer since the explosion has been thoroughly Third Week.  It has focused on the broken body of Christ.  The Lamb of God is broken, and the pain is real.  Like Veronica, we can wipe the sweat and blood away, but the wounds still exist.  It is that radical accompaniment that we aspire to in our Ignatian tradition; it is our response to the accompaniment that is the Incarnation.  "Offre Joie" and CJC (with Dany Younes SJ) preparing meals for those who lost their houses and the clean up volunteers. The relief is on-going, the reconstruction will take a long time and many resources.  The Jesuits of the Middle East are very grateful for any help that can be shared.  We will need to advocate for the rights of displaced people and migrants as well as vulnerable Lebanese.  However, there is a deep sense that this brokenness is not the end.  As people inspired by Ignatius we are called to be agents of that deep sense of hope, we are called to preach the resurrection in all we do.  Read also: JRS stands in solidarity with the people of Beirut
Tuesday, August 4, 2020, around 6:00 p.m. local time, we saw and heard a very loud explosion not far from our residence. A big black smoke rose to the sky, the whole building was shaken, the windows blown out, the doors ripped open, the false ceiling on the floor.   A scene of desolation and massive destruction everywhere in our 11-storey residence. Also, the community and St. Gregory's College were heavily damaged. Thank God we only had two minor injuries.   More than 100 people were killed and 4000 injured. The hospital, Hôtel-Dieu de France run by the University of Saint Joseph, did not stop treating the wounded; in the corridors, the doctors were stitching up stitches. The buildings of the university and the hospital were badly damaged. Everywhere in Beirut, one sees shattered windows, streets littered with glass, and one hears only the sirens of the ambulances and the noise of cleaning broken windows. The city is in shock. People were already suffering under the weight of a very serious political and economic crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic that was spreading, and now a wave of destruction and demolition is descending upon them. Images: Entrance of the Jesuit Residence, Chapel of the Residence, Community room  
The Jesuit community of the Holy Land proposes a series of encounter programs to get to know better the three great religious traditions of the Holy Land: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Ten days spent with the Jesuit community in Jerusalem provides the occasion to study in depth each one of these religious traditions, encountering members of the  religious community and visiting sites and institutions that are central to them. In the course of the program, members of the Jesuit community share their experience and knowledge in the context of the Holy Land today. An encounter with modern Judaism An encounter with modern Islam An encounter with Christianity in the Holy Land Read more