Iskenderun Cathedral after the earthquake (Photo: Antuan Ilgit SJ)

Turkey: "Amid the rubble, we are living stones"

The collapsed cathedral, the fear, the dead, taking in the displaced. And that mass celebrated with survivors of any religion.... From the city of Iskenderun, in the Diocese of Antioch, the account of Turkish Jesuit Fr. Antuan Ilgit
Antuan Ilgit SJ

"My name is Antuan, Fr. Antuan, I am the first and only Turkish Jesuit, the only priest of Turkish origin serving the Church in Turkey." His voice comes through crystal clear over the phone, but it is upsetting to think that he is calling from Iskenderun, old Alexandretta, one of the areas in the southwest of the country hardest hit by the earthquake and also by a tsunami that swept through the streets with salt water from the sea. Fr. Antuan Ilgit was ordained a priest in June 2010, just days after the killing of Monsignor Luigi Padovese, vicar apostolic of Anatolia, whom he knew very well. Today it is Fr. Antuan who serves that vicariate, which covers half of the Turkish territory, "a really very large territory, in which we have many scattered communities, far away from each other." He is based in Iskenderun. This is what he told us about these days after the earthquake.

The first thing I noticed there, as soon as the tremors stopped and I came out of my room, was that our cathedral was gone. It had collapsed. From that moment on, our parishioners, slowly, crying, came to the church, because we have a big courtyard and the buildings where we live were left standing, especially the refectory which has a wooden ceiling. These people, not only our parishioners but also believers from the Armenian Church, Orthodox, Protestants, but also Muslims, took refuge with us, and from then on we tried to organize to accommodate them. The first two days we used all the materials that were in our refrigerators and storage, water, everything. But already on the second day we had nothing left, especially drinking water. So I started to put posts on Facebook, when we had an internet connection. Thanks to the posts we began to receive aid. The first to arrive was from the Spanish government with its military. We are using this aid for those who have taken refuge with us and for those who are outside, the people who live on the streets, on the waterfront, we try to cook with the means we have available and bring it to others. But this is work we were already doing before the earthquake: every day the Catholic Church distributed the meal to 150 poor families.

Evacuees at the Iskenderun parish (Photo: Antuan Ilgit SJ)

Besides material needs, the remarkable, significant thing that has happened is the collapse of the cathedral. People say, "We have lost our homes." They are not talking about their homes, but about the cathedral, because in a Muslim country it was a beautiful presence that is now gone. People are suffering a lot. I suffer too. A few hours before the earthquake, I had celebrated Sunday mass there. Now it is gone. Thank God the statue of Our Lady has survived, and the statue of St. Anthony, my namesake, and that gives us a lot of strength. First I tried to safeguard the tabernacle, the apse was left standing but I am afraid it will not hold.

Father Antuan celebrates mass after the earthquake (Photo: Antuan Ilgit SJ)

Together with the people who have taken refuge with us, we celebrate Mass and our Muslim guests also participate, because at such a time, where everything lacks, everyone needs faith, God. I did not hear any complaints, like "where is God?", "why did he allow this?". On the contrary, everyone is seeking God even in this situation. Mass is experienced so deeply, as it had not been before. In a time of catastrophe we feel the presence of the Lord strongly, who is here with us. In these days, the liturgy is paradoxical, because the first readings speak of creation while we experience total destruction. But creation was not made once and for all, it continues, and the Son of God, Jesus, is a participant in creation. This feeling of His presence slowly sustains us, with living stones that are us, the parishioners left alive. With Jesus' help we are recreating our community, our cathedral: the life around us. And we try to give hope to those outside the "boundaries" of our church. This is what we are experiencing. Now we weep for the collapsed stones, but there are the living stones. Through them we will build the cathedral. We are the Body of Christ and that is what we are living. I have studied for many years in the United States, Italy, Turkey, and am now a lecturer. But all that I have studied at this time is lost, instead there is a history that now edifies and forms me once again.

The welcoming of a nun (Photo: Antuan Ilgit SJ)

In first few days it was just us. Rescuers arrived on the third day when people were still under the rubble and relatives were trying to pull them out. Some were amputated: the whole family of one of our neighbors died, he lost his two legs, but he is alive. The situation is dramatic and I stand here as the only Catholic priest, a son of this land (my town is three hours away and it was hit but not like this). I try to comfort the flock that the Lord has entrusted to me. I work from morning to night; I did not change for five days, I eat what I find, I pray with them, but I am not alone. There were already two Italian volunteers here to help us in the daily routine, then there are three nuns who came from abroad a few months ago to establish the first contemplative monastery in almost a century together, the very first cloistered monastery here in Turkey. We had just started fixing up their monastery. And it collapsed. But they are here with us, with the people, they are a comfort.

The statue of Our Lady in the Cathedral (Photo: Antuan Ilgit SJ)

Where does hope come from at such a time? I did not use my phone much before, only social media. As soon as I found an internet connection, I received hundreds of messages from the places of my formation, from the United States, from Spain, from Italy especially. So many seminarians, my students, the people I had met were all praying and wanting to help. Through the Internet, Christ was reaching us. This struck me, so from day one I have always tried to write something to share with others. I am also trying to live this network as a body, as the presence of the Lord.

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In the evening we have no electricity, I retreat to a place and pray, meditate. I read two lines from the Gospel, close my eyes and see all the people and faces crying, people being pulled out of the rubble. And this sustains me, allowing me to stay in dialogue with the Lord, otherwise I collapse. So I try to cultivate myself, to be able to give myself to people. Other Christian communities are trying to help us, in incredible ways they are coming here with cars. Trucks are being blocked, so people are trying by all means to get here to help us, and that is also very consoling. The Catholic Church, in a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim, is giving itself to help people. Without making any distinctions. We help everyone because that is the Gospel. What we receive we give to others and we do it from a true heart.

text collected and edited by Paola Ronconi