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Iraqi Christians' second Christmas as refugees
03:45 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN’s “Newsroom” each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

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For Christians living in parts of the Middle East, going to mass on Christmas Eve is an act of courage

Carol Costello: Talking with an Iraqi Catholic nun made her feel gratitude

CNN  — 

I love Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass is the best. I desperately wanted to celebrate midnight Mass at the magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, until I found out that would be impossible. The mass is “sold out.”

As the St. Patrick’s website explains: “We receive thousands of requests each year and send tickets, first-come-first-serve, by the date they are received. We start accepting ticket requests at the end of the summer.”

Who knew midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was the hottest ticket in town? But, as I thought more deeply about my extreme disappointment, I felt ashamed.

Carol Costello

Yes, it would be amazing if I could worship at St. Patrick’s – where Pope Francis prayed just a few months ago – but the fact I am able to celebrate Christ’s birth in any church, anywhere – without fear – ought to be enough.

For Christians living in parts of the Middle East targeted by militants, going to Mass on Christmas Eve is an act of courage.

A few weeks ago, I talked via the Internet with Sister Ban Saaed, an Iraqi Catholic nun living in a refugee camp under Kurdish control. The connection was tenuous, but our conversation taught me something I never needed to learn in Sunday school: Gratitude for the freedom to practice not just my Catholic faith, but any faith I wished.

“Our identity is very difficult … in our country,” Sister Ban told me from a Kurdish controlled area in Iraq. “We would like to live our lives in peace, but we haven’t seen peace since we’ve been born.”

Sister Ban lives with other Christians in a shipping container outfitted with intermittent electricity in a refugee camp near the city of Irbil. It’s a far cry from her life in the ancient biblical area of Nineveh, modern day Mosul, Iraq. There, the U.S.-educated Sister Ban lived in a convent with dozens of other Dominican Sisters. She had successfully established Montessori schools to educate hundreds of Iraqi children.

But all that disappeared on August 6, 2014. That’s the day ISIS came and told the sisters they had three choices: Pay a tax to practice their Christian faith, convert, or die.

“They left with the Christian community because the sisters would never convert and they didn’t have money to be paying taxes,” Sister Donna Markham, president of Catholic Charities USA, told me.

Sister Ban has not only stuck by her fellow Christians, but also has set up makeshift schools for hundreds of displaced Iraqi children. She worries, though. The children have witnessed horrific violence perpetrated by ISIS terrorists, and in spite of her master’s degree in special education, she fears she does not have the skills to help them.

“Sometimes they fight with each other and become aggressive,” she told me. “So we have a special table with two chairs. We call it a peace table. We let them [the children] talk about why they hurt each other.”

Sister Ban tells them there is no need to fight; they are safe now. But the children, even the youngest, want to go home to Iraq. She told me the children see fighting ISIS as their only way to return home.

“I’m talking about the 4- and 5-year-old children; the children that we are working with,” Sister Ban said. “We ask them: ‘What would you like to be in the future?’ One of our children said that ‘I would like to become a soldier so I can go fight ISIS and then we can go [back] to our country.’ “

I wish I had asked Sister Ban how she was celebrating Christmas this year, but our tenuous Internet connection broke down. She later texted me saying that her father had died. I can’t imagine how painful life must be for her now.

Still, I bet her faith is as strong as ever. Her last words to me were about how Americans can help. No, she and the other sisters do not want to escape to the United States. They want our prayers.

Like the children they serve, the sisters just want to go home. “We are asking for your prayers, because your prayers support us,” she told me. “We would like to live in dignity because we’ve lost our dignity.”

The fight for the youth vote is on.

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