Faith Lives on Despite Suffering in Iraq, Syria, Say Vatican Envoys

More than 1,000 people packed into a tent in a refugee camp in Irbil, Iraq, for the Easter vigil Mass celebrated by Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, former nuncio to Iraq and Pope Francis' personal representative to those forced to flee the fury of Islamic State militants.

The cardinal, who brought a personal donation from the pope to aid the refugees, celebrated the Eastern morning Mass in the town of Sulaymaniyah, another town in Iraqi Kurdistan where the displaced have found refuge.

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After the Mass April 5, Cardinal Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, spoke to Vatican Radio. At both Easter celebrations, he said, he told the people that "we were not alone at this important moment for our faith, important from a spiritual point of view for all those who find themselves in difficulty."

In many ways, the cardinal said, the situation is calm. "The authorities I met with are very cooperative" and the Christians are celebrating Easter as best they can, "but they have never before celebrated outside their villages and homes. There is hope that next Easter they can celebrate at home again, in their own villages."

The living conditions in the Irbil camp are particularly difficult, he said. "In fact, they live in a structure where, unfortunately, the facilities and the environment are not very good. However, we have received assurances from the authorities that immediately after Easter they will all be transferred" to a new area where there will be trailers and small portable homes.

Meanwhile, in Syria, Islamic State fighters reportedly took control of a large portion of the Yarmouk refugee camp, a settlement originally built for Palestinian refugees in the 1940s. In a statement April 5, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which had been caring for the Palestinians, said, "Since April 1 this residential area of Damascus -- where some 18,000 people have already been trapped for over two years -- has been engulfed by intense fighting."

"The lives of civilians in Yarmouk have never been more profoundly threatened," the statement said. "Men, women and children -- Syrians and Palestinians alike -- are cowering in their battered homes in profound fear, desperate for security, food and water, deeply concerned by the grave perils that may yet come, as hostilities continue. It is virtually impossible for civilians to leave Yarmouk as any attempt to move in the open brings high risk."

Archbishop Mario Zenari, the apostolic nuncio to Syria, told Vatican Radio, "As you know, unfortunately, Syria has begun the fifth year of its civil war and is living the Way of the Cross. What is weighing most on people now is not knowing what station we are on: Is this the last station, the one that precedes the light of the Resurrection? Or are we still on the fifth station of this Via Crucis?"

Although many Catholics have been able to flee, he said, "those who remain demonstrate a strong faith. They go to church, they attended the liturgies of Holy Week to beg the Lord for the gift of peace, the gift of reconciliation."

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