SYRIA Priest in Iskenderun: since the earthquake, unity between the Churches, the prayer of Christians and Muslims

Fr. Antuan Ilgıt, a Jesuit, recounts the situation a week after the devastating earthquake. The collapse of the cathedral and the Cáritas relief machine, with a thousand meals a day for the displaced and sending aid to a devastated Antioquia. The thought placed on the Syrian refugees “whom we cannot abandon”, because “we must go where no one can or wants to go”.

Milan () – Sharing a “dramatic experience”; a de facto ecumenism that leads Christians of different denominations “to mutual aid”; an interreligious dialogue that becomes a living experience of “welcome” and moments of “common prayer, like the participation of some Muslims in the mass”. so account to Father Antuan Ilgıt, Jesuit and Bishop Chancellor of the Apostolic Vicariate of Anatolia, daily reality in Iskenderun, and in Turkey, a week after the devastating earthquake that shook the country and neighboring Syria.

We are sharing a dramatic event”, stresses the priest, who has been on the front line from the beginning helping the displaced, whether they are citizens or foreign refugees. “On a personal level, I have tried to use my acquaintances from Mersin, my hometown, and the friendships that I cultivated over the years, such as the one I maintain with the sub-prefect, to raise aid and cover basic needs such as electricity”

Also in terms of relationships,” he explains, “I share everyone’s difficulties on a daily basis. We haven’t been able to bathe for a week because there is no water, we only use wipes for a minimum of personal hygiene. I really do feel like the shepherd in a flock of sheep, and not just metaphorically. People, when they meet me, express their feelings more easily, they cry desperately, but a word of consolation can take effect immediately.” And in the drama, he continues, “here in Iskenderun we are doing well compared to Antioch. This morning I spoke with the local parish priest, Father Francis [Dondu, párroco de la iglesia de los Santos Pedro y Pablo, ndr], which speaks of a very serious situation. On the other hand, the cathedral collapsed for us, but the parish remained standing despite the fact that many houses collapsed around it, and that is why we have become a point of reference for relief and reception.

Father Antuan, as he himself recalls, is “the only Turkish Jesuit and the only Catholic priest of Turkish origin” in the area “at the service of the Church of Turkey”. He has lived there permanently for a year, after having spent a lot of time abroad for studies and mission. “I consider it a grace to have returned and shared this experience,” he underlined, “because it is a painful moment in our history” and there are many needs. “Here in Iskenderun we are receiving a lot of help that, as soon as it arrives, we also send to other areas. We have managed to send three loads to Antioch and we are using the parish of Mersin, which was partly saved, to welcome the displaced, Catholics and Orthodox without distinction. It is what I call the ecumenism of tragedy, which brings together Latinos, Armenians, Orthodox and others. There are Muslims -he says- who ask to participate in mass, who need to pray and feel God close, because this becomes a source of comfort. The earthquake united us, an enormous devastation could also generate good and teaches us that ‘if the great choose war’, peoples and individuals ‘can, instead, commit themselves to peace’… we experience it in our fur!

The religious was born in Germany in 1972 and comes from a family of Muslim immigrants. He returned to Turkey at a very young age, where he studied and graduated in Economics at Gazi University in Ankara. His conversion to Catholicism and his baptism in 1997 in the church of Santa Teresa del Niño Jesús go back to those years, lived in the capital; after him, his studies and novitiate that concluded with his priestly ordination and the celebration of his first mass, which we reported at the time in this article from .

“At the time of the earthquake [eran las 4.17 horas del 6 de febrero] I didn’t immediately leave the room,” he recalls. “The earthquake lasted two minutes, I went out with some nuns and two Italian volunteers who had come knocking on my door. The cathedral had disappeared, collapsed, only the apse, the tabernacle and the statues of Our Lady and Saint Anthony were saved. I walked over the rubble to pick up the Blessed Sacrament… it was incredible to see that destruction where, a few hours before, I had celebrated mass.” “The cook came immediately with her husband,” she recalls, “then the parishioners with a blanket on and barefoot, crying for having lost the cathedral, their home. I have experienced a lot of pain in my life, but this is the first experience of a tragedy, and the consolation and collaboration with the vicar, Monsignor Paolo Bizzeti, is important. [hoy mismo, en Facebook, el sacerdote cuenta cómo alertó al prelado del terremoto y de las primeras respuestas a la emergencia]and with the person in charge of the local Cáritas, John Farhad Sadredin”.

After a week it is still an emergency: the water pipes are destroyed, the sewage system in tatters, the buildings piles of rubble, the cook of a few dozen meals today cooks 1,000 a day, for everyone. “Now the seawater has receded,” she explains, “but of all the tall multi-story buildings, even in the wealthy neighborhoods, there is nothing left. People are digging through the rubble, and for a couple of days the phenomenon of looting has emerged, groups that come from abroad to rob shops and houses”. “Ours is a surreal situation, but we live day by day, dealing with daily needs and without thinking about the future. Later, when we have passed this stage, we will need long-term reconstruction projects, starting with the cathedral, which is everyone’s home. Lastly, -he concludes- we must continue to care for the many refugees [de Siria, Irán, Irak, Afganistán] that had been entrusted to us: as Cáritas Anatolia we cannot abandon them, and as the motto of Saint Ignatius says, we must go where no one can or wants to go’.


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Written by Editor TLN

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