Christian Refugees Sulaimaniya Iraq, Interview Jens Petzold 1080p

3 more in collection Iraq: Swiss Priest Cares for Christian Refugees Who Fled ISIS

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Created by Nils Metzger

Iraq 19 Apr 2015

Format mpeg4, Bitrate 7.277 mbps

This interview is part of a raw footage collection on Christian refugees in Sulaimaniya, Iraq.


  1. [0:00:00-0:02:13] Father Petzold: The entire refugee situation is nothing one has written down in his work contract. I was here for another reason. But when the people turned up, especially Christians I had known before, there was a moral obligation to welcome the refugees and take care of them. At the same time, it was very important to offer them a refuge where they felt at home and could identify with. They should have a secure place where they had a chance to reason whether they can build any new trust in this country of Iraq or if they wanted to emigrate later on. It is important to me that they don’t flee - as most of their fellow refugees. Most of them simply wanted to get away as far as possible; to Australia in many cases. You can’t get away any further than that. Out of all the 55 families who arrived here, only 5 left again for some other place. One to Erbil, others to Jordan, to Lebanon and to Turkey. Those who headed for Lebanon and Turkey already came back to this very place. To me, this demonstrates that they found a kind of security here at the monastery.
  2. [0:02:13 - 0:03:02] Father Petzold: As a center for refugees, we succeeded at giving people a moment of rest, of taking a deep breath and reflect about their plans to move to another country. How do they imagine their own future in another country? Make sure, they don’t just followed their flight instinct.
  3. [0:03:02 - 0:05:40] Father Petzold: For my mission here the existence of an authentic Christian community is also of great importance. It is important to preserve Eastern Christianity. Large parts of the Bible were written in Iraq, many people still speak Aramaic, or Surez as it is called locally, a language that reaches far into the life of Christ himself. If we lose those communities, we also lose some contact to the Holy Scripture as well as an instrument of interpretation of those texts. Every time we lose such history, it becomes a bit harder to understand our own religion. This is what ISIS is doing right now: destroying history. Both Christian and Islamic. With every tomb of an Islamic teacher they destroy a part of interpretation history of Islam. That way, it gets harder every time for a religion to focus on its essentials - same is valid for us Christians. If we lose the living example of the Eastern Christians who are culturally and linguistically the closest to the life of Jesus Christ, we lose an important element.
  4. [0:05:40 - 0:07:32] Father Petzold: I am sure it was the experience of [his Syrian home monastery] Mar Musa. We had thousands, tens of thousands of visitors. That way you gather a lot of experience. We also had our founder, Father Paolo [Dall’Oglio, who was abducted by ISIS in July 2013] who was very experienced as well. The mission of Mar Musa is hospitality among other things. Hospitality towards strangers and hospitality in an Islamic context. Maybe, if you live there as a novice, it makes you aware and open towards guests. Now it is hard to speak of them as guests after six months. Still, the idea of hospitality is essential if you want to house people for six months in your house, in your monastery.
  5. [0:07:32 - 0:08:58] Journalist: What gives you the strength to do this task? Father Petzold: Praying, especially praying together. Those little questions that sometimes come up and the attempts to figure out, as a group, what the Holy Scripture says. From time to time it gives you a little nudge, a little boost of energy that feels very good. If you live with so many people, especially if you are responsible for them, you sometimes need to withdraw from everything. I need to make sure that I have one day every week for myself. I usually walk the mountains around Sulaimaniya, take a good book, sometimes even take a not so good book - I prefer to have some kind of spiritual reading with me. Or to enjoy silence and nature.
  6. [0:08:58 - 0:12:37] Father Petzold: I stem from a family that abandoned religion around 1900, from a Berlin family. My entire family was politically active, so I had not much to do with the church. By accident, I ended up in Damascus and by accident as well, I travelled with a doctor to Mar Musa - originally to stay only for a weekend. Four visits later on, Father Paolo asked me to stay for a year and do spiritual research. That was 1994.The reason for my journey back then was to head to East Asia and get introduced to the different methods of meditation and Zen Buddhism. And when I was offered the one year stay at the monastery, I came to the conclusion - well, it’s a Christian monastery; the world is not perfect. I was not even considering to get involved with Christianity. Still, I had the feeling this was an interesting offer. It was much closer to my own history back in Europe compared with Zen Buddhism and this is why I decided to stay in Mar Musa for a year. After that year, on Easter 1996 I asked whether I could be baptized - and Father Paolo just told me how fitting this would be to celebrate Easter. Afterwards, I returned to Switzerland for some time to reflect what I actually wanted. I did not want to make that decision to become a monk in Mar Musa. Then, I returned and asked to become a monk - and this time Father Paolo just said “we’ll see”. One year as a postulate, three years as a novice followed. In 2000, I made my religious vows.
  7. [0:12:37 - 0:13:40] Journalist: This was not the first time, you changed the geographic center of your life. Before that, you went through the tiresome process of receiving a Swiss citizenship and moving there from Germany. Why this second time? Did you not consider Switzerland as your home? Do you have any place you would call home or are people more important to you than locations? Father Petzold: You could say, I am not very faithful. I am at home where I put my backpack on the group. It’s definitely true that I identify myself more as a Swiss that as a German. Switzerland has given me a lot, especially an understanding of plurality which is maybe harder to find in Germany. In Switzerland we have four languages and when I was still working at the office, we had an office in Geneva. And out of fear to make some grammar mistake in French I spoke German with the local secretary and out of the same fear she replied to me in French. And it worked out just fine - we never misunderstood each other.
  8. [0:13:40 - 0:14:37] Father Petzold: A certain easiness when it comes to spirituality. In Zurich they had some extreme form of Protestantism but that got lost all by itself. Right now, the spiritual scene of Switzerland is quite colorful. That raised a number of questions with me about why Aikido for instance - I practiced a lot of it - needs to be so very Japanese? I had the impression you could “recultivate” it very easily to make is Swiss without Aikido losing anything of its substance.
  9. [0:14:37 - 0:15:17] Father Petzold: I never felt in the right place. I had big trouble finding any job. I worked as a postman - my last job so to say. And then I went on a spiritual journey. I somehow wanted a spiritual dimension in my work.
  10. [0:15:17 - 0:16:33] Father Petzold: How we solve problems in our communities is a central theme: to be transparent or at least try to be very transparent. By now, we have four monasteries. We are 13 people and have four monasteries: Deir Mar Musa, Qariatayn, our teaching monastery in Italy close to Rome and here in Sulaimaniya Deir Maryam al-Adhra. Right now, we are a bit isolated but still, there is a recurring theme. Qariatayn housed 3.000 refugees, at one time 5.000 refugees - with only one priest being there. It was not possible to travel from here to Qariatayn because of the battles going on.
  11. [0:16:33 - 0:17:13] Father Petzold: Working with the refugees is only a temporary task. It might take a long time - we always say it’s a makeshift solution for five years. In Mar Musa, we had a makeshift roof on top of our church for 20 years - so we are used to it and know what it may imply. We have the goal of not allowing the refugees to resign and think of this arrangement as a final one.
  12. [0:17:13 - 0:18:37] Father Petzold: I don’t want to tie them down here. If a family has lost its faith in Iraq and wants to migrate - not flee, but migrate - then I am ready to offer them any help possible to prepare them for emigration. I also hope that instruments will be created [to assist the refugees]. Right now, you either have to go to Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey - or migrate illegaly to Italy - to have any chance to receive a refugee status. Maybe it is also more interesting not to become a refugee but a proper migrant to whatever country you go. There need to be structures to allow this. That way, we might be able to work towards Lampedusa not being flooded with people.
  13. [0:18:37 - 0:19:53] Father Petzold: My plans are to - on day - build one of our monasteries in Iran. One that focuses dialogue of Christianity and Islam just as much as we do it here. “Harmony building” how the dear Father Paolo [Dall’Oglio] always called it. I am also very curious about Central Asia. Finally, I have arrived at the right church. This church went to China. The Chaldean church had monasteries in China, very close to Shaolin. That is all very curious to me, I am in the right church now and so I hope that I will find one day at the end of my life a final resting place near the city of Kashgar [in the Uyghur East of China].
  14. [0:19:53 - 0:20:59] Journalist: What term would you use for your work? Missionary, monk, traveller, maybe even Crusader? Father Petzold: Pilgrim. That would be a more fascinating title. Yes, pilgrim. Someone who visits different holy sites all over the world. I think holy sites are all places that were touched by God in any way and are able to connect people with faith. It is not necessarily important which religion these locations belong to. That you can see in the Middle East very well. Every place of worship for Mother Mary is also important to Islam. Even our small Maria statue in the yard is regularly visited by Moslem women. Before the war, we always had more Muslim women coming to Saidnaya [important place of Maria worshipping in Syria] than Christians.