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|| By Mary Ellen Manz, M.M., Photos by Rosemarie Milazzo, M.M.

A Maryknoll Sister joins other Christians in peacemaking in Iraqi Kurdistan

After decades of missionary work in Tanzania and Kenya, Maryknoll Sister Rosemarie Milazzo feels called to a new mission: building peace with an ecumenical group called Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). She now goes several months each year with committed Christians of other denominations and nationalities to live, pray and work with them as ambassadors of peace to some of the world’s most troubled areas.

Sister Ro, as she prefers to be known, served most recently last fall with a Christian Peacemaker Team in northeastern Iraq, known as Iraqi Kurdistan. It is an autonomous entity with its own local government and parliament, struggling for peace among its residents and with its Middle Eastern neighbors. This was the missioner’s fourth three-month assignment to Kurdistan, where she served with three other members of this team.

“I seem to understand what it means to be an international human rights worker more each day. I step into each day, sometimes shaky, but I trust that God who got me here walks with me,” Sister Ro wrote from Iraqi Kurdistan, where one of her team’s tasks was to encourage a fair Kurdistan election.
During the campaign before the election, the peacemaker team was invited to a meeting of one of the political parties vying for votes. One participant, a poet, called on the people to rejoice that their party had chosen a candle as its symbol and not a weapon of war. The poet said the flag bears the flame of a candle, a light to the people.

Sister Ro (r.) stands with a Kurdish woman in Iraq holding photos of her sisters, political prisoners in Iran, one already executed and the other awaiting her fate in an Iranian jail.

“They are setting an example of what is possible when non-violence is the path,” says Sister Ro. “I listened and felt the hope among them as they looked at a future they believe can be a possibility.”
She reported that although most of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan are Muslims, there is religious freedom. One evening, the team visited an old monastery in Sulaimani, where they met three monks and a Sister who had fled the persecution of Christians in neighboring Syria. All sat in prayerful meditation in a church lit by one candle for an hour and then celebrated the Eucharist together followed by more chanting and silent prayer. One of the monks played a piercing melody on his flute and Sister Ro says she felt “transported to an ancient prayer setting.”

“At Mass, one of the monks told us he heard that an ancient monastery in Syria had been bombed by the government there,” says Sister Ro. “Their own monastery in Syria is just 20 minutes from there, so they knew the place and monks well. We remembered all of them.”

The team also visited refugee camps in Iraq, where thousands of Syrians had come seeking asylum from their country’s civil war. The 81-year-old missioner from Brooklyn, N.Y., says the Christian Peacemaker Team traveled from village to village conducting workshops on non-violence in a land where the people are still healing from years of war. One of the tasks the team undertook on this stay in Iraq was witnessing and documenting injustices such as how villagers are being displaced from their homes because of oil companies drilling on the villagers’ ancestral land. “This land is their life and their livelihood,” she says.

Many people in the countries where the Christian Peacemaker Teams go see the teams as a ray of hope and that in witnessing and documenting what they see, the teams show the people the world cares what happens to them, Sister Ro says. Several times on this trip Sister Ro and the team were asked to give sanctuary to women who were in imminent danger for their lives in a society that often oppresses women.

“All they want is safety for their children and themselves,” the Maryknoller says. One day when the team was in court, a young pregnant woman who had accused her husband of burning her recanted her accusation. She told the court she had been burned when she fell into the fire. Sister Ro’s translator said: “Either her family or her in-laws forced her to do this.” The woman returned to her seat and wept.

In a refugee camp in Iraq teeming with Syrians who have fled civil war in their country, Sister Rosemarie Milazzo (left) embraces a Syrian woman in compassion and solidarity.

Another time a group working with women brought a woman to the CPT and asked the members to protect her. She would be killed by her villagers if they knew she was pregnant while unmarried. Cpt gave her hospitality and the other organization was able to connect her with wadi, a German-Iraqi non-governmental organization that promotes human rights in Iraq and focuses on empowering women and assisting women in distress.

“The woman got to meet the women at wadi and they were able to work out a solution that would be … safe for her,” Sister Ro says. “There is a family that is happy to adopt the baby.”
During Sister Ro’s stay in Iraq, Amnesty International called on Christian Peacemaker Teams for assistance regarding a young man named Haji Hussein who they believed was being held in prison unjustly and had reportedly been tortured. Sister Ro went to visit and interview the young man in prison.

“This was a first for me; being frisked to get in to visit a prisoner is hard stuff,” Sister Ro says. “However, after the guards got to know me, they just waved me on saying, ‘Haji Hussein—Go!’ ” When she visited him, Hussein would speak of what he planned to do when he was released. “One of the things was, he would rush to the market, buy 100 birds and release them into the air to celebrate his freedom!” she says. Shortly after arriving back in the United States last November, Sister Ro received the good news that Hussein has been released from prison.

“I am humbled by their courage and their struggle, and they challenge me again and again to realize the life of privilege I live,” Sister Ro says of the people she met in Iraqi Kurdistan. “We human beings are a fragile race. When we’re hurt and suffering, we need someone to listen to us.”

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About the author

Mary Ellen Manz, M.M.

Maryknoll Sister Mary Ellen Manz of Jamaica, New York, entered the Maryknoll Sisters Congregation in 1950 after having graduated from the Mary Louis Academy. She served in Chile, South Sudan and in different positions at the Maryknoll Sisters Center. She is also the Sisters’ liaison to Maryknoll Magazine and has written many articles about the Sisters for the publication.