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Syriac Catholics in Sydney lose relatives in catastrophic Iraq fire

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Syriac Catholics in Sydney have rallied to pray, organise fundraising and send medical supplies to victims of a catastrophic fire in northern Iraq. Photo: OSV News photo/Abdullah Rashid Reuters
Syriac Catholics in Sydney have rallied to pray, organise fundraising and send medical supplies to victims of a catastrophic fire in northern Iraq. Photo: OSV News photo/Abdullah Rashid Reuters

Sydney’s Syriac Catholics are in mourning after a catastrophic fire in northern Iraq that claimed more than 120 lives and injured more than 150 at a wedding reception.

Close relatives of two Syriac Catholic families in Sydney perished in the inferno on the outskirts of Bakhdida, also known as Qaraqosh, on the Ninevah Plains north of the capital Mosul.

“Most Syriac Catholics are from this village and we are broken-hearted,” said Fr Lenard Ina, parish priest of the Syriac Catholic Church in Sydney and Canberra.

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The parish has rallied to pray, organise fundraising and send medical supplies to their former home which is still struggling to recover from two years of occupation by ISIS.

More than 3000 people from several Catholic and Orthodox churches gathered in the hall of St Thomas the Apostle Chaldean church in Bossley Park for a memorial service on 3 October and to donate to support the victims.

Apostolic visitor for Syriac Catholics Archbishop Basilious Georges Casmoussa joined Chaldean Archbishop Amel Nona, Assyrian Archbishop Mar Meelis Zaia, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Mor Malatius Malki and representatives from other churches and the community for the service.

Videos posted online showed that the fire, which hit international headlines and led to three national days of mourning in Iraq, began while the bride and groom, Rivan Kahak and Haneen Sheto, were dancing.

“They are in a very bad situation and are blaming themselves. If Australia can allow them to come here or can send doctors over there to help the injured we would be grateful,” Fr Ina said.

Syriac Catholic Fr Lenard Ina, pictured in his presbytery in Fairfield. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
Syriac Catholic Fr Lenard Ina, pictured in his presbytery in Fairfield. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

“My friend Fr Potrus Sheto who studied with me in the seminary lost his father, mother, two sisters, two sisters-in-law and their four children.

“He told me, ‘I am sharing in Christ’s passion now. I went home and there is not one person there.’”

Fr Ina said there are different stories about what happened on 26 September in al-Haitham Hall, a large event venue on the outskirts of Qaraqosh in the diocese of Mosul.

An initial government investigation said it was caused by a combination of fireworks, illegal flammable construction materials and other safety breaches at the venue.

But Fr Ina said that no one really knows what happened and there are calls for a more extensive external investigation.

Less than half of the families from Bakhdida, around 25,000 to 30,000 Christians, have returned to their city after it was liberated from ISIS in 2016.

Their spirits were lifted by the historic visit of Pope Francis in 2021 but Fr Ina said this latest tragedy is the final straw for many who after suffering years of chaos and corruption in the region now simply want to leave Iraq.

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