As Shirley Valentine once remarked, cynically, ‘marriage is like the Middle East. There’s no solution.’
But that doesn’t stop committed Catholics from trying to find one, at least for the Middle East. On two evenings in Melbourne parishes this week (Tuesday night in Dandenong North and Wednesday night in Thornbury), Benjamin Blanchard unfolded some of the recent history of both Iraq and Syria, along with a fervent plea for help and for action by Australians in particular, and the Western world in general.
Visiting from France, where he is the co-founder of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient (Christians of the Middle East), a French Catholic NGO, Benjamin spoke at St Gerard’s in North Dandenong, before addressing a gathering at Our Lady of Lebanon in Thornbury the following night. The evenings’ title was ‘Rebuilding Iraq and Syria: The future of the Middle East.’
Accompanying Benjamin around Australia for this visit is Australian volunteer Ora Duffley, recent finalist for Catholic ‘volunteer of the year’ award in her home Brisbane Archdiocese. Hearing Ora speak of her own experiences as a volunteer for SOS, it’s easy to understand why this passionate young Irish Australian has engaged so many on Benjamin’s whirlwind Australian visit (two weeks, in which it is hoped to raise $150,000).
Ora’s personal journey is, as she says, one of discovery – discovery of the power of faith and of raw courage in the face of the most appalling destruction, cruelty and unending fear in the Christian communities of Syria and Iraq, amongst whom she has been working. Until recently and the gradual displacement of ISIS, Ora has also been working with Christian refugees in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.
A powerful video was shown, revealing graphically the extent of the destruction in Christian communities in Iraq and Syria. But whole communities are now being rebuilt, through the efforts of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient and other agencies such as Aid to the Church in Need, with whom Ora also worked on the ground in the Middle East. Schools, hospitals, churches – all destroyed – are gradually being reborn.
Benjamin Blanchard, a French lawyer until he was abruptly thrust into the midst of the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, has put his career on hold while he works with the 1,000 volunteers and other trained people to engage with Christian communities wherever the assistance of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient is required.
‘Our goal is to help, of course,’ he says, ‘but more than that, it is to connect Christians from the West with those in the East, to discover each other.’
‘Where cultures meet,’ he says, ‘friendships bloom.’
Benjamin expressed his gratitude that so many of the volunteers who come for a month or two or six are now returning as qualified teachers, engineers, nurses, builders, helping the massive relocations back to Syria and Iraq, but also working to support the many tens of thousands still languishing in refugee camps in countries such as Lebanon.
Ora Duffley shared her experiences and her heartfelt pleas, first with the audiences in Dandenong North and Thornbury, but then also with us, as she recounted her personal journey, her dreams for the people of Iraq and Syria, and her fervent request for support from future volunteers.
‘Christians in Iraq and Syria have practised, nurtured and preserved their faith for 2,000 years on those very lands from which they have been so cruelly displaced,’ she declared. ‘And where it’s now our privilege to serve them.’
Parish priest of St Gerard’s, Dandenong North, Fr Brendan Arthur, who hosted Benjamin and Ora for their Melbourne stay, paid public tribute to SOS Chrétiens d’Orient for their impressive Catholicity. ‘They don’t do as many others do and sell the supernatural out of what they do and make it only humanitarian,’ he said. ‘This is work that deliberately gives glory to God and the Church. These people are an inspiration.’
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