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Iraqi Christian Relief Council is proud to partner with Philos Project in bringing the Fast of Nineveh to the Western church.

Iraqi Christian Relief Council is sharing the voices of seven believers taking part in the Fast of Nineveh, also known as Baoota d’ Ninevahey (Rogation of the Ninevites), February 6-9. Iraqi Christian Relief Council has chosen a theme for each day’s blog. Today’s theme is food.

Discover the spiritual journey of these very different individuals fasting for the Assyrian people and victims of ISIS throughout Iraq and the Middle East.

Tuesday, February 7, Food

1. Savina Dawood

Savina Dawood is the co-founder of Etuti, a journalist, vice chairman at IYDU, part of the Executive Committee of ChaldoAssyrian Students & Youth Union and Assyrian Cultural Club, and GISHRU. She was born and raised in Erbil, Iraq and currently studies her Masters in Human Rights in Erlangen, Germany. Her favorite part of the Fast of Nineveh is when her family would gather around her father and he would recall the story of the prophet Jonah and the whale.

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Savina Dawood shares bread with a Yezidi woman displaced by ISIS in a Yezidi IDP camp in Iraq

Day 2: It is not really the food that we need to fast from, but from selfishness, hatred and meanness. And it is not the three days of the Nineveh Fast, or 25 of the Christmas Fast, or the 50 of Easter, or every Friday and Wednesday, but every regular day. It is not our stomachs that need cleansing and reviving but our hearts, minds, actions, and souls.

It is beautiful and important to keep our traditional Fasts and specially our Assyrian “soma” dishes, as I normally fast for midnight until 12, then only feed on vegetarian food, but let’s not consider it the key point of fasting. Like Christ answered the devil when he challenged him to turn the stones to bread and stop his fast and hunger, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” Mathew (4:4)

May our fast and prayers be accepted, Amen.

“The Fast of Nineveh is important because the Ninevites are our Assyrian ancestors. If it is something that my ancestor did, then I can do that too.”-Father Gewaris Sulaiman

Father George and Chicago clergy break the fast on day 1 of the Fast of Nineveh

Father George and Chicago clergy break the fast on day 1 of the Fast of Nineveh

“Fasting is a form of social justice.”-Father Gewargis Sulaiman

2. Father Gewargis Sulaiman

Father Gewargis Sulaiman is the parish priest of St. George Cathedral in Chicago. He was born and raised as an Assyrian Christian in Baghdad, Iraq and spent his youth in both Duhok and Baghdad.

Day 2: The Fast of Nineveh is about abstaining from food from midnight until the evening after mass, which is when we traditionally break the fast. Some believers even abstain from food and drink, including water, for three days. It is also an Assyrian tradition for those who fast without food and water to do this fast for 3 years or 7 years straight. It is a custom among our people. For those who go this route, they often say that God helps them survive somehow. 

Usually when Assyrians break their fasts, we don’t eat anything containing animals products. The reason behind this is many, but in the end it is to make us more humble. Fasting is not about concentrating on the food, but to eat whatever is near and accessible. The reason behind this tradition of eating vegetarian food is that everyone, including the rich and the poor have access to vegetables. In the tradition of Jonah, he asked everyone from kings to the poorest in the kingdom to fast. When we choose to only break our fast with plant-based food, this means everyone in a community can share a common experience. It makes everyone feel equal and humble in front of God. Some also say it is a way to feel the pain of those that eat these types of food for most of their life. Fasting is a form of social justice.

Different vegetarian dishes Father George has eaten while breaking the fast

Different vegetarian dishes Father George has eaten while breaking the fast

During the fast, you should also do charity. One thing you can find at Assyrian churches is that everyone brings food for the community to break the fast together. Yesterday, we all broke the fast together.  

Of course, fasting is not about the food, but still Assyrians have found a way to create delicious recipes that contain no meat. Some famous ones are dolma (stuffed vegetables) and rizza mashe (white bean stew in tomato sauce and onion). The dishes revolve around beans, lentils, and rice in almost every dish.

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“My voluntary privations are so minor in comparison with those who have nothing and I am experiencing a renewed sense of gratitude for all that I do have.”-Caroline Farrow

3. Caroline Farrow

Caroline Farrow is a Roman Catholic media commentator and weekly columnist for a Catholic newspaper. She is a mother to five children and she lives in Surrey, United Kingdom.

Day 2: Going without food or indeed deliberately depriving oneself of anything, always makes you focus upon what it is that you are missing and re-evaluate its importance in your life. Fasting is truly a blessing because not only does it cause you to draw closer to God, making you realize your dependence on him, but it also causes you to count your blessings. There’s a huge difference between voluntarily agreeing to deprive yourself of food for a relatively short period of time and actually not being able to procure enough food in order to survive. How many Christians in the Nineveh Plains were forced into the latter category as a result of the occupation of ISIS? Being able to access the things that we take for granted, like a hot cup of coffee, or being able to help yourself to a crafty biscuit from an jar which is full to the brim, must seem an unimaginable luxury.

My voluntary privations are so minor in comparison with those who have nothing and I am experiencing a renewed sense of gratitude for all that I do have. It is hard having to walk past cupboards filled with plentiful food and even harder having to handle the food in order to make meals and provide for my family without having any myself, the fruit bowl has never looked so succulent and as I handed my little son a breadstick for his morning snack it took a real act of will to stop myself from helping myself to just a little crumb. I can only hope and pray that this offering will be pleasing to God who will use it to bring about healing to all of the fractured and suffering communities of Christians in the Middle East and beyond.

Never before has water tasted quite so ambrosial as when I took my first proper swig from a bottle at 7:45 p.m., the first opportunity I had to break the fast. One thing I have realized however, is that it is not food which is actually interfering with and distracting from my relationship with God, so maybe in this technological age we should all ask ourselves what are those things which we use to substitute for spiritual nourishment and are there other things that we can reduce or give up as an offering?

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Destruction left behind by ISIS in the Nineveh Plain captured by Ewelina during her last trip

4. Ewelina U. Ochab

Ewelina U. Ochab is a Human Rights Advocate, Legal Researcher, and PhD Candidate, Roman-Catholic, living in the UK. She is fasting in solidarity with the persecuted Church in the Middle East.

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?’ Matthew 6:25

Day 2: During my trip to the Middle East, I met with many Christians families, both the refugees in Jordan and the internally displaced in Erbil. They had been displaced for two years and three months when I met them. They were relying on humanitarian assistance and they did not have much. Nonetheless, wherever I went, I was greeted with food and drink. Despite not having much (or indeed very little), these families I visited wanted to share whatever they had.

“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?’ The Christians I met in the Middle East are certainly living out that message. A message that is very easy to miss in our pursuits of career, money, and material goods. The Christian families I met told me that they perceived themselves lucky because they managed to escape ISIS. They had to run in the middle of the night loosing everything with their lives now turned upside down. But they managed to escape, they lived — and they are grateful to God for that. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. We should look up to the Christians in the Middle East as they have not lost their ways in this material world. We can learn from them about the value of life. We can learn from them about the strength of Christian faith. We shall.

Sweets made by Katherine for her family to share while breaking the fast

Sweets made by Katherine for her family to share while breaking the fast

“Essentially when we fast we are saying we love the Lord more than bread, more than our own lives.”-Katherine Hanna

5. Katherine Hanna

Katherine Hanna is a wife to an Egyptian Christian and mother to three amazing children in Minnesota. She is a nurse by profession, artist at heart and follower of Jesus.

Day 2: On this our second day of the fasting we focus on food.

This is often a challenging topic for those of us, who like myself, live in a country where food is all around us and where one of the highest grossing industries in the US is actually the weight loss industry. It’s challenging because we are bombarded daily with food, and with numerous choices. We can often forget that many people in other parts of the world suffer daily with lack of food, especially children who lack the nutrition they need to grow, learn, and be healthy.

As a mother, it breaks my heart to think of those who had to flee in the night from the terrors of ISIS without the ability to provide shelter, or be able to secure food for their children, who even today are in need of food. As a nurse, I know how essential food is to wound healing, the ability to thrive among the elderly and the young, and the important role it plays in nutrition with newborns and mothers.

The Lord reminded me that Jesus is and was always concerned about the physical needs of his people, especially food! He himself is called “The Bread of Life” – this is not by mistake. Having compassion on the crowd of five thousand, He would not let them go away hungry and fed them with only a few fish and loaves of bread. His compassion on the widow at Sidon, whose oil and flour did not run out under Elijah’s care, manna in the desert no less, and water form a rock are only a few examples of his compassion around food. As the Ninevites turned in prayer to God to spare their lives, they also abstained from food – they fasted. They gave up something essential to living to show God they took His spiritual “wake-up” call to their lives seriously.

Essentially, when we fast we are saying we love the Lord more than bread, more than our own lives. We acknowledge our insufficiency and in turn show our dependence on the Holy Spirit. Just as God heard the cries of the Ninevites, He will hear ours today. I am praying that God would grant my country’s leaders wisdom in directing resources toward measures that provide food and shelter to all who have suffered in Iraq and Syria. Amen. 

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Nerary’s dinner to break the fast

“For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”-Jesus in Matthew 12:40

6. Nerary Yousif

Nerary Yousif is an Assyrian Christian activist who has worked for Assyrian communities in Chicago, D.C, and in Iraq. He works for the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation, and currently lives in Chicago. His goal is to finish his studies in history and biblical archaeology.

Day 2: As we continue to fast and pray, we must also look deeper into scripture. As I study the Bible, especially the Old Testament, I begin to see deep pattern and hidden messages. A pattern of stories and lessons pointing to one Man, Jesus Christ. He who is God in the flesh, the great ‘I Am’. We must not only fast and pray for the Assyrian people and the suffering of Christians in the Middle East, but also pay attention to God’s word and the deep patterns and mysteries as they unfold right before our eyes. There is a reason why the Assyrian people continue to survive through the continuous genocides and evil atrocities committed throughout the last 1,500 years.

“We must all be modern day Jonahs, speak truth in the midst of those who hate you.”-Nerary Yousif

There have been many ancient ethnic groups in the Near East that lost their identity and culture because of their unwillingness to submit to God, but the Assyrians in Nineveh repented. God has used the Assyrian people throughout the last 4,000 years, from using Assyria as His “Handiwork” to judge Israel, spreading Christianity to China and India, and continuing to stand in the face of evil that today is ISIS, refusing to bow down and hold on to what we know to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Jesus Christ. I am fasting and praying for my people in Iraq and Syria to keep their faith strong and hold on to hope. We must all be modern day Jonahs, speak truth in the midst of those who hate you. Speak truth without fear, for God is with us.

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Mary makes notes in her Bible

“The Fast of Nineveh was something done in my household ever since I can remember.”-Mary Anton

7. Mary Anton

Mary Anton was born in Baghdad in 1994, however soon after her family fled to Canada, the country they now call home. Mary is a York University student majoring Health Studies in Toronto. She currently serves in Chaldean Catholic Church and is part of the executive team of a non-for-profit organization – the Assyrian Chaldean Syriac Student Union (ACSSU).

Day 2: When I was a child, I didn’t completely understand why we had to fast for some guy named Jonah who was swallowed by a big fish. However, a few years back I began to understand why the Fast of Nineveh is so important for all Christians spiritually, and for our people back home.

Many times, we focus fasting on the abstinence of eating certain foods at certain times. However, from what I have learnt over the past few years, fasting is so much more! For me, fasting is a way to shift my focus to God entirely. To take my eyes off things of this world and to focus on the Lord, and to depend on Him no matter what. Fasting helps me gain a new perspective as it did to Jonah.

Today, I will not eat until sundown. I decided to do this because I want to ask for peace in our land, allowing Him to use me for His will for whatever plan He has for our people and to ultimately to draw myself closer to God. When I feel hungry, I think of God and I remember why I’m doing this. Having confidence in His love, grace, and mercy — that is He is here for us and for our people and He will bring peace to our land.

Reshare this blog on social media with the hashtag #FastOfNineveh. Donate to support persecuted Assyrians in Iraq and the Middle East at VictimsOfISIS.org.

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