Each year on Yom Kippur, Jews read the Book of Jonah during the afternoon services. The story recalls the initially reluctant prophet’s eventual exhortation to the Ninevites to repent.
I recently met a modern-day Ninevite whose own life is filled with the drama of proclamation, flight and return, and conversion and repentance.
Father Noel Farman, an Iraqi Catholic priest, is currently serving in my hometown of Calgary. Born in a mountain village called Sanat, Noel grew up in Mosul from the age of two.
There was no birth certificate – only the baptismal one – and his mother recounted the day of his birth relative to the nearest feast day, informing him that he was born three days before the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Noel’s earliest childhood memory is of a girl named Hana who was a few years older than him. She would buy him a typical Iraqi candy with sweet syrup and they would sit outside the ancient Church of Saint Isaiah, which is listed in a congressional record from 2014 among the churches and institutions in Mosul that were destroyed by ISIS.
As migrants from the village to the city, Noel grew up mainly among other Aramaic-speaking families. Initially, they were not only culturally isolated from non-Christians, but from Arabic-speaking Christians as well. However, at age four, Noel became fluent in Arabic, prompting the local bishop to remark, “This kid, being bilingual at such a young age, could become a great translator.”
Noel was raised in a home shared between a few families with many children and he received a deeply Christian upbringing. His boyhood was also coloured by being a young witness to violence and death. During the years of 1958-1960, there was a series of political assassinations and, at the age of eight, he remembers seeing the blood of a father and son spilled outside their house in Noel’s neighbourhood.
“Because we lived on a principal street,” Fr. Noel says, “I remember seeing the body of someone who had been killed and left for a couple hours, on the sidewalk. A teacher had also been killed in one of the alleys leading to the Chaldean cathedral. All of this happened due to political disputes between the Communists, with their secularist doctrines, and the Pan-Arabic Islamist parties. During this time, therefore, any adult Christian could be suspected of being a communist. It was clearly a Muslim-Christian-Islamist-secularist confrontation, and the Christians who were among the cultural elite fled to Baghdad.”
In 1971, at 19, Noel published his first article, which confirmed in him his passion for writing. Professionally, he did end up working as a translator, among other jobs. But his aptitude for different languages gave him an awareness of a plurality of sources and he began to be commissioned to write his own articles, launching his career in journalism. Among his articles was a piece about the famous clocktower of the Dominican church in Mosul. That these articles were published in a secular Arabic magazine under his Christian name brought him a lot of joy and confidence. “With time I established close relationships with eminent journalists and readers, and the articles signed by the Christian name Noel were a specific mission (i.e., a discreet means to contribute to the pluralism within the Muslim-majority society).”
In the Eastern rites, priests can marry, which Noel did. Then, in 1994, the patriarchate of Baghdad and the Eparchy of Mosul simultaneously encouraged him to consider becoming a priest. At the time he had been assisting the Dominican fathers with their magazine and leading various outreach activities for young people. He was well equipped because of the education he had received, along with his experience working as a journalist for the Christian Thought magazine published by the Dominicans.
The topics of Noel’s studies had ranged from French literature to cultural tourism to religious and Biblical studies. He was particularly interested in the psychology of persons with visual impairments. Noel learned and practiced Braille and exchanged letters with people in France and Tunisia through a friendship centre based in France.
As time went on, the situation in Iraq became less stable. Fr. Noel says that, “During the first year after the fall of Saddam Hussein, we were mistaken in thinking that the Americans came to liberate the country from a dictatorial regime. Soon after, with disappointment, we obviously noticed that they were aiming to weaken the country and bring it down by dismantling the army, opening the armory to the public, and sowing discord and sectarianism. In the end, the country was left to Iranian influence."
It became particularly threatening for Noel and his family since Christians who were well-known personalities – among them, priests or just wealthy Iraqi citizens – made easy targets for kidnapping. He had relatives in Canada who would sponsor them but, obedient in his service to the Church as a priest, he first sought clarity as to whether the Chaldean Church would accept his service in Canada. With the blessing of his ecclesiastical authorities, Noel left in 2004 to Kurdistan, then to Syria, before coming to Canada.
Fr. Noel came to Calgary. Knowing his French background, the local bishop of the very anglophone city assigned Fr. Noel to serve the French-speaking parish. Eventually, in December 2006, Fr. Noel was able to establish the local St. Mary’s Chaldean parish for “devoted Canadians in Alberta, faithful to their Mesopotamian roots” and, of course, for any visitors interested in hearing the Mass celebrated in the language that Jesus spoke.
It was also during his time in Calgary that Fr. Noel became interested in the Biblical richness of Hebrew and began to study it. A Franciscan sister became his study partner. She helped him with the structural study of the language, and he helped her with the vocabulary given the many commonalities with Aramaic.
When it comes to the Hebrew Bible, this Ninevite Fr. Noel describes his favourite figures with affection: “Noah, the new father of humanity; Samuel, the listening boy; Esther, the courageous woman; David, the great convert and penitent; and, Solomon, the wise and poetic king.” Yet, he expresses his greatest fondness for the character of Jonah saying, “The story of Jonah is imprinted upon the hearts of the Chaldo-Assyrian generations. My family used to live in a house just a 10-minute walk from the wall of Nineveh and in our villages, many are named for this Biblical personality, with various derivations of the name."
An important lecture on Jonah he attended at Beth Tzedec Congregation synagogue led him to propose that a diocesan Muslim-Christian committee on which he served be renamed the Tent of Abraham when a local rabbi joined it.
Eventually, the Patriarch of Babylon and head of the Chaldean Church, whom Pope Francis made a Cardinal in 2018, asked Fr. Noel to return to Iraq during a transitional period given that one of the pastors had just been sent to Australia. Cardinal Sako had been in seminary one year ahead of Noel. He describes it as “a field school in social communications and multi-faith events that included meetings with dignitaries on behalf of persecuted Christians.”
In the course of his life, Fr. Noel has also had the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He reflects, “I have been to Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land for a guided spiritual tour. Going to the Holy Land is an experience of conversion, or an opportunity to renew oneself by means of a deeper conversion of heart. For a Christian, nothing can compare to experiencing his faith in this living, vital way. It is a gospel in life. It is going back home as for someone to his own family, and then continuing his own path in life. Finally, it is to be assured of the tangibility of God’s truth."
Indeed, it is quite a remarkable life that Fr. Noel has lived so far – suiting his universal heart. Given Fr. Noel’s worldliness and his Christianity, I was curious to hear about whether and how this Iraqi Christian had confronted the history of the Holocaust, particularly since, after the Palestinian Territories, Iraq has ranked number two in the Anti-Defamation League’s list of the most antisemitic countries.
Fr. Noel answered, “I first learned about the Holocaust during my studies in seminary. It was a historical shame for all of humanity. I also had a great and moving occasion in connection to the Holocaust when I met Hungarian survivor Eva Olsson, a motivational speaker and author of several books.
“She gave her presentation at École Sainte-Marguerite-Bourgeoys. After her presentation, the principal suggested that she and I go for a meal together. So I invited Eva to a Persian restaurant. I suggested that together, as Jew and Christian, we symbolically share a lamb, hearkening to Passover and Easter for each of us. It was such a warm occasion, like a feeling between mother and son. The lamb was cooked by an Iranian who was also quite moved by the encounter since he had immigrated to Canada having fled the Iranian regime.”
Iraqi Christians see themselves as descendants of the ancient Ninevites who repented upon Jonah’s exhortation and continue to believe in God with fervour, fasting, and repentance. Each year, in fact, they do a three day Fast of Nineveh, in anticipation of the Lenten season.
And so, this year during the Yom Kippur services, Jews might spare a thought for Fr. Noel’s hometown. After all, it is a city that God Himself pitied and to which He Himself showed mercy.
After last week’s online National Prayer Breakfast, Cardus Executive Vice President Ray Pennings reflected in his weekly Insights newsletter on how to pray in public – and pluralistic – spaces. Convivium reprints his text.