Forgiving enemies is not so easy

An interview with Christina Shabo

This article was first published in the 21 August 2016 issue of Sunday Examiner, the English-language weekly of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong edited by Australian Columban Fr James Mulroney.

Pope Francis at World Youth Day 2016 [Wikipedia]

KRAKÓW (SE): ‘I asked Jesus for the grace to forgive every time I prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet. But instead of praying “For the sake of his sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world,” I prayed “have mercy on the Islamic State and on the whole world”,’ Christina Shabo, who was born under a tree in a refugee camp after her family fled the bombing in Iraq in 1991, said in a testimony on 29 July at World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland.

However, she told CNA that in fact nothing is that simple, because when she was first asked to share her experiences and incorporate something about forgiveness, her only thought was, ‘I do not forgive the Islamic State.’ The 25-year-old explained, ‘I’ve struggled with it, because I have not got there yet. I don’t forgive the Islamic State. It is a daily reminder,’ she continued, pointing out that she still harbors anger and resentment.

‘I was a miracle baby. I truly was,’ she said, telling how her mother was eight months pregnant when her family made the decision to flee the bombing during the Gulf War in 1991. They joined thousands of their neighbors on the long trek to Turkey, spending much of the time in fear as bombs fell around them. Christine explained that her eight-year-old cousin, Rita, was among those who perished along the way, but her father did not have the heart to bury her in the mountains and carried her dead body all the way into Turkey. However, the Shabo family did make it and pitched camp under a tree where, after a month, her mother gave birth. Two years later her family was given asylum in the USA and settled in Detroit.

WYD 2016, Kraków

But while the little world of her immediate family was cozy, the big world of violence Christine had been born into was reincarnated on 20 June 2014 when the Islamic State stormed Mosul, Iraq, slaughtering both Christians and Muslims who did not share its extreme ideologies. She said one of her relatives was ‘violently murdered . . . He was chopped up in a dozen pieces’ and delivered to his family in a bag. ‘Imagine someone that you love being delivered to you in a bag in pieces. It is insane. So when I hear stories like that, how could I not be angry?’ she queried. One of her cousins was also killed in Baghdad and her cousin’s mother, at the time of writing, was still in the hospital fighting for her life.

The young Iraqi said that in the middle of all that, it is hard to think of forgiveness, but throughout her life whenever she has felt anguish, anger, frustration or numbness, ‘I go to adoration. I take it to him.’ She explained that was where the idea of praying for the Islamic State came to her mind. ‘It just kind of came to me; pray for them . . . but think about them in a more positive way,’ she reflected. She said that in all truth, her initial thought was ‘fake it till you make it’ but eventually she was able to let go of some of her anger.

Iraqi pilgrims at WYD 2016

But, she explained that there is a sense of guilt that goes along with the blessing of living in Detroit, where she can live like a normal person, except for the guilt that comes from knowing the rest of her family did not make it. ‘None of my other family survived. There’s a sense of guilt that I survived and they didn’t,’ she said, explaining that she also feels a deep connection with the Christians in Iraq and desperately wants to go back.

She tries to keep her Aramaic roots and struggles with the language as it is the one that Jesus Christ spoke, and a Middle East without Christians would be a tragedy she cannot contemplate. ‘That can’t happen. I don’t want to see that happen. I don’t want to live in that world,’ she said.

She has found being at World Youth Day a real privilege. ‘As powerless as you feel as an individual, when you connect with other people who have that same passion that have that same desire, God works wonders,’ she said. ‘It is good to know that other people are listening and connecting with the story,’ she concluded.

WYD 2016 anthem in Arabic

The English text on the video is not a translation of the words of the song but a reflection on the reality of so many refugees from conflicts in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. May the video remind us that the very oldest Christian communities are in Iraq and its neighboring countries and that the vast majority of our brothers and sisters in those communities are Arabs.