Stories of religious persecution

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St Elian Church in Syria
Damage in the town of Qaryatain, Syria after it was recaptured by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. The relics of Syrian St Elian, which originally were thought to have been destroyed by members of the so-called Islamic State militia, were found amid the rubble of the desecrated Mar Elian Church in Qaryatain in 2016. PHOTO: CNS/Syria’s national news agency handout via Reuters

Two refugees from religious persecution in their countries shared their stories with The Catholic Weekly in the lead-up to the Red Wednesday campaign for faith and freedom on November 28.

Bombing was the last straw

Nader Bulos
Nader Bulos brought his family from war-torn Syria to rebuild a new life in Australia in safety. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Nader Bulos, 45, says he can’t describe the terror following the deadly double bombing of his children’s primary school in the Syrian city of Homs on 1 February, 2014.

More than 40 young children died in the attacks and the father of two searched for his own for more than two hours, among school bags, shoes, and [the bodies of] “the martyrs” before examining hospital lists of the casualties.

“I can’t think about this moment,” he says shaking his head.

“Later I found them in psychological shock and bad [physical]condition. And after this I decided to leave Syria.”

His wife Kenana says that God gave them a miracle in bringing the family safely out of Syria, via Lebanon, after five years of daily suffering in the city which suffered the most devastation in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

The Bulos’ were among the 100,000 Christians living in Homs when the war erupted in 2011.

Many of them fled the city in the years following, but conditions have since improved and some are returning to rebuild their homes, says Nader.

After several months living as refugees in Lebanon, Nader and Kenana accepted an offer of asylum from Australia in 2016.

Today the couple live in Sydney’s west with their son Elias, 13, and daughter Leen, 11, in a peaceful and modest home with an image of Mary displayed over their front door.

Such a thing was impossible in Homs during those five years when Kenana was forced to wear a hijab to disguise her faith when out of the house.

But Nader says their Orthodox faith kept them strong through unimaginable trauma in the centre of a war zone.

“We could not go to church for five years because it was not safe to go anywhere, but we prayed every day,” he says.

Fear, uncertainty, forced me to flee

Woman weaving
In this 2016 file photo, woman makes a rug in Kashan, Iran. PHOTO: CNS/Abedin Taherkenareh, EPA

Life in her native Iran was difficult for Eszther (not her real name) as a member of the country’s much-persecuted Baha’i community.

She lived in fear of being arrested like a close family member who currently free on bail but who has been arrested several times and is facing a jail sentence in Iran for educating children in the Baha’i faith and running activities for the Baha’i community.

“My life was in danger, I could be arrested and imprisoned any time for my involvement in religious activities, such as different community building and educational activities that are part of our service to the community,” Eszter said.

Now living in Sydney, Eszther had trouble finding a job in Iran after obtaining her civil engineering degree at a tertiary institution run for the Baha’i community—who face barriers entering the country’s other universities.

“Baha’i people have been discriminated against and persecuted by the government of Iran since the Islamic revolution 40 years ago,” she said.

“I had little chance of finding a job in my chosen career, was deprived of pursuing further studies, and I felt my life was in danger as well, so I left Iran.”