TORONTO (CCN) — The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will culminate next month with a final liturgy uniting Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians at the Chaldean Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in the northwest corner of Toronto.
Archbishops, bishops, moderators, priests and ministers of every sort will unite in prayer with a congregation of Iraqi and Syrian Christians who have fled violence and left behind friends and family. This time the prayers and the pews will be connected to the refugee camps, the terrorist attacks, the ransoms paid to keep family together and those who have died.
For the Chaldeans of Toronto — Arabic-speaking, Eastern Rite Catholics who once dominated life in Iraq’s second city of Mosul — the solidarity of other Christians is no mere gesture, said McMaster University life science student Rita Waseem. For her friends in Syria, just the idea that all kinds of Christians are praying for them half a world away will be a sign of hope.
“It gives them reason to believe in God again,” said Waseem.
For many of the Canadian student’s young friends in Syria, faith has come to seem absurd when they are faced with constant violence in the name of faith.
“They tell me what they think, what they feel. The question is, where is God?” said Waseem. “I understand that.”
As a member of the St. Peter’s Chaldean senior youth group in Oakville, one of nearly 40 young people who gather on Friday nights for prayer, catechesis and social time in an old house on the edge of town, Waseem senses that she’s the one who has to keep the faith for her friends, who have no sure sense of a future or of a home.
“Prayer is communication with God,” said York University student Mary Anton as she gets ready for the Chaldean youth group meeting. “You’re reaching out to your Father saying, ‘We need you to create unity.’ We don’t know how to be loving people. But God is love.”
The idea that Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox will all be there with the Chaldeans to pray for the Christians of the Middle East has Anton excited.
“Being there with us, standing there with us, is really important,” she said.
“Prayer is underestimated too often,” said St. Peter’s pastor Rev.. Niaz Toma.
But prayer, said Toma, implies action.
“It should go hand-in-hand with tackling human rights in the Middle East,” he said.
Democracy is the only way Christians and their culture will survive in the countries where Christianity was first preached and received, said Toma. But that’s not a quick solution. The 2003 American invasion unleashed the violence that now dominates life in Iraq and Syria. In the chaos Muslim fundamentalism has no limits within a previously developed and peaceful Iraq. The whole experiment proves that democracy cannot be imposed, Toma said.
Education, constitutional structure and democratic values have to be learned from the family on up through the school system, and those are processes that have to work within Arab and mostly Muslim culture, according to the Chaldean priest.
There are about 40,000 Chaldeans in Canada, 25,000 in the Greater Toronto Area. It’s a fast growing community. If you’re looking for Christians willing to buy into the ecumenical dream, look no further, said Toma.
“We have one faith, one destiny, one journey together,” he said. “We believe in one God, one Jesus Christ. The time has come once again for the church to realize that she needs more than ever unity.”
The theme for the 2016 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was based on 1 Peter 2:9 and chosen by an ecumenical team in Latvia, where Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox and others both still reeling, but at the same time experiencing a rebirth, after half a century of Soviet rule. The First Letter of Peter states: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”
Christians in Latvia played a prominent role when Latvia regained its independence in 1991. They prayed in the once desolate churches of Riga, then went out into the streets, unarmed, and set up barricades against Soviet tanks.
But after two generations grew up in an atheist police state, the Latvian journey back to faith has not been instantaneous or overwhelming. However, there is a quiet resurrection. Latvian Christians have learned to pray together and for each other.
The modest and struggling church of Latvia has proposed to the Christian world that we pray together because we are “called to proclaim the mighty acts of God.”
Iraqis and Syrians plan to respond to that call with your help.