John L. Allen Jr. and Ines San Martin
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq. (Credit: Aid to the Church in Need.)
ERBIL, Iraq – Officially speaking, anyway, there’s no index of the moral heroes of Catholicism in our time. There would be plenty of candidates, clergy and religious lay men and women, all over the world who put their lives on the line in every imaginable way to serve the planet’s most marginalized and suffering people.
Somewhere near the top of the list, however, would have to be Archbishop Bashar Warda, leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, Iraq.
Warda has arguably the world’s toughest gig for a Catholic bishop right now, leading a place that became a vast tent city in 2014 when ISIS invaded the Nineveh Plains and drove thousands of Christians from villages that had been their families’ homes, in some cases, for almost two millennia. Eventually, ISIS’s onslaught was recognized as “genocide” not only by Pope Francis but also by the U.S. government.
Since the Iraqi government lacked the resources, the will, or both, to do much of anything, it fell to Warda to launch what amounted to a Dunkirk-in-place operation, giving these people shelter, food, health care, schooling for the children, jobs where possible, and, ultimately, some tender sense of hope.
Today, many of those Christians are trying to go home, sustained by the “Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project” funded and supported by several Catholic organizations including the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus.
(The Knights are a principal partner of Crux, and Aid to the Church in Need is sponsoring Crux’s reporting from the Nineveh Plains.)
Speaking on “The Crux of the Matter” radio show on the Catholic Channel, Sirius XM 129, on Monday, Warda outlined a vision of a Christianity in the area poised not only to survive but to thrive.
“The whole Middle East is disrupted by violence, corruption, and political disruptions. It’s corrupted by sin. It’s Jesus who will forgive this sin and heal these wounds. Who is going to give Jesus to this troubled and corrupted Middle East but the Christians?”
“So, we are not just Christians” he said. “We’re disciples of forgiveness and love.”
“It’s a very difficult time, troubling time, people are really troubled by these questions. ‘Why are we suffering, God? Why are we here? Is there a possibility to go, live somewhere else, make all these troubles stop?’” Warda said.
“But I would say no, we should really be awaking to this mission,” he said.
Facing such a mammoth challenge, Warda said it was deeply reassuring that the Trump administration and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced it would not only provide funding for the reconstruction effort, but that it would be administered by the local Christian leadership rather than large global entities such as the UN, which often don’t know the situation and the players.
To date, however, Warda said the promised help hasn’t arrived. Still, he said, he’s optimistic.
“The last statement from the Vice President’s office was really encouraging. It said he’s watching this issue and taking care of it. He directed Mr. Mark Green to come and visit and see things with his own eyes. [Note: Green is the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.] I hope good things will come out of it,” Warda said.
“I do believe that the Americans want to help,” he said. “This is the first time the American administration has recognized there are people being persecuted because of their faith.”
The following is the full transcript of Crux’s exchange with Warda, which took place in the Christian neighborhood of Ankawa in Erbil.
Crux: For people who don’t know you, tell us a bit about your experience.
Warda: I was born in Baghdad in 1969, joined the St. Peter Chaldean Seminary in 1981, was ordained a priest in 1993, so this is the 25th anniversary of my ordination. Then I joined the Redemptorists.
Which must mean we have a mutual friend in Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark?
He’s a brother, really, my brother in the way he’s supported us spiritually and also talking so many times, passionately, about us. He welcomed me in his house for a few days. I thank God for the Catholic Church, having a brother like Cardinal Tobin.
He’s given us a lot of support, especially when he was in Rome, speaking about the Redemptorist mission in Iraq, which was established in 1958. The dedication of those three priests made us really realize how important the history of our Church is. They left everything to be here. One was for me a call to join the Redemptorists.
After that, I spent two years in blessed Ireland, then two years at the Catholic University of Leuven, and then I came back to Baghdad in 1995. I did my pastoral work with the people, preaching retreats but also teaching moral theology and introduction to Catholic Social Teaching at the college.
The war started in 2003, and it was a very difficult time. I was working as a parish priest in the southern part of Baghdad, and my church was hit by a car bomb August 1, 2004. My response to that event was building a school. The people came to me after the bombing and asked me, ‘what are you going to do, what will be your response?’ I felt a neighborhood that would allow a car bomb to go off in front of a Catholic Church needs to be educated. We did, through a primary school. The first year, 90 percent of the students were Christians. By the fourth year, 90 percent were Muslims.
They feel now that the school is their home, so in a way, everyone protects the church. At the same time, everyone still prays the Our Father together. This is the first thing students do.
The official curriculum being taught in Iraq is all Muslim. There’s no mention of the Christians or the Yazidis. It’s all about Islam. So those students, up to college, know nothing about Christians. They hear that we are the infidels, and blah, blah, blah. I’m not surprised that some people took guns and persecuted Christians, because they know nothing about that. We have no other way but to educate them.
Then in 2006, with the kidnapping of priests, burning and bombing of churches, we had a very difficult time with opening the Chaldean seminary again, which was the only Catholic seminary in Baghdad. The Chaldean patriarch asked if I could start the program again in Erbil, so I brought the program here, where we started the academic year. We lived for a year and a half in a caravan, taking care of 32 seminarians, and then in 2009, we built the big seminary and it’s still here.
In 2009, I was elected as Archbishop of Erbil by the Chaldean synod, which was blessed by Pope Benedict. I was consecrated in 2010, and that’s me.
Right now, what is the situation for your community? What are the points of hope, what are the challenges?
I would read and meditate on the whole experience starting from chapter 12 of the Acts of the Apostles. When Peter was imprisoned, the whole community gathered to pray for Peter in his imprisonment. God sent his angel to Peter, which was really, of course, a sign that God never forgot his Church. The way that it’s being read, that Peter was called to mission again, the Angel told him ‘follow me.’ It’s the same words that were spoken to Peter by Jesus, who told him, ‘Follow me.’
Yesterday we shared this with the community during the Mass: the time of persecution is also the time for mission. Yes, we’ve had a very difficult situation since 2003. The number of Christians dropped from 1.5 million to around 300,000. Still, I have to help my people to find their mission, the reason why we’re still here. We could be in another place. When my people ask me, ‘Why are we still here?’ I say, ‘We’re here for mission.’
The whole Middle East is disrupted by violence, corruption, and political disruptions. It’s corrupted by sin. It’s Jesus who will forgive this sin and heal these wounds. Who is going to give Jesus to this troubled and corrupted Middle East but the Christians? So, we are not just Christians. We’re disciples of forgiveness and love.
We share this strongly with the whole Catholic Church, people who are praying for us like the first Church in the Acts of the Apostles… Everyone gathered to pray for the Christians. I could say, ‘This is the mission.’
It’s a very difficult time, troubling time, people are really troubled by these questions. ‘Why are we suffering, God? Why are we here? Is there a possibility to go, live somewhere else, make all these troubles stop?’ But I would say no, we should really be awaking to this mission.
That’s an inspiring vision, but is it naïve? Given everything that’s happening, is it really possible for Christians to thrive in this environment?
I feel this is my call, my vocation, to help my people not to survive but to thrive, using all the means available. And I feel that God has prepared a lot of ways in helping the people. All we need is to open our eyes to this help.
Yes, there are many times in which I’ve complained, I’ve been agry, asked, ‘Why all this burden on me, why me?’ But whenever I remember the story of Prophet Elijah complaining to God that things were very bad, people are killing your prophets, God told him to calm down, because he’d saved 5,000 who hadn’t worshiped Baal.
God has more people than me, or you. He has a plan, and his providence will work out for those who believe in him and are going through a difficult time.
I remember in 2014, seeing all the people, the crowds we had at the cathedral, no one imagined we could do something for them. But everyone came wanting to help. Journalists came, and they began spreading the news about what is happening in this part of the world. Other people from bishops’ conferences, Chaldean Churches, missionaries, the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need, Catholic Relief Services, CNEWA, so many people…
Everyone wanted to do something to help us take care of the people. All we have to say is, ‘At the end of the day, I’m not going to present God only with problems. I hope that I can come with some plans,’ and if he agrees, he’ll show me the way. If not, I know to leave it there.
At the end of the day, He’s the big boss, he’ll take care of the people working in the field.
We’re here in part with the help of Aid to the Church in Need, a papal foundation that’s heavily involved here. One of the initiatives is the reconstruction of the Nineveh Plains, to help Christians who used to live in these villages go home. How’s it going?
This initiative began to be organized after three years of working with displaced people in Erbil. I must say, from the work of providing housing, education, caring for elderly people, providing free healthcare, we began thinking we could help people go back to their villages by reconstructing houses that were looted, burned or destroyed by ISIS. The work of collecting information for what needed to be done was really professional, divided in stages.
Then we launched this program for families who were living in camps or in houses rented by the Church, so that they could go back to Nineveh. Of course, we’re not talking about Mosul, because the damage there was huge and it’s not secure yet. We said from the beginning, the Church is not going to endanger families by sending them to places that are not secured. So that’s why we focused on the Nineveh Plains. Historically, it’s the oldest place where Christians could really relate to the early Church fathers. The history is there, and quite vivid and important to us.
Some 3,000 families have gone back to [the villages of] Qaraqosh and Bartella. Financial help came first from the government of Hungary, which donated two million Euros to rebuild, and now they’re helping build community services to help people have a social life. The Dominican sisters are rebuilding their kindergarten that was bombed, looted and destroyed by the attacks of ISIS.
The Knights of Columbus donated $2 million to help rebuild the village of Karamles. We have some 300 families there, and we’re also trying to increase the level of services. Aid to the Church in Need, with other donors, are working in Qaraqosh, Bartella and other villages, helping families rebuild their houses.
The more we could do, the better. We’re ending an academic year, and we have three months of summer holidays before starting again in September. This summer is very critical for us. We need to put all our efforts to rebuild these villages. The Iraqi government has already told us that they don’t have the money, so they’re not going to help.
We were really delighted to hear from U.S. Vice President [Mike] Pence that help is on the way. As I mentioned before, it was positive for us to tell everyone, especially here in the region, that the American administration was watching. But other donors, when they heard the American government was going to give some money, pulled back. They said, ‘They don’t need us,’ so some of our big donors, who were really helping us for three years and a half, said, ‘You have enough,’ and their money went to Syria.
Has the promised American money actually arrived?
No, unfortunately it passed through the usual bureaucratic channels.
Why not give it to the leadership of the local community such as yourself, who are in the best position to make sure it actually reaches the people for whom it’s intended, right?
We’ve never left our people alone. We were with them welcoming them in our houses, we were with them. We knocked on doors to provide them with food, education and housing. We went everywhere we could to speak about their case, and we called everyone to come and see. We cut a lot of red tape, a lot of intermediaries, between the donor and the one who needs help. We know the needs very well.
You said recently you’re optimistic the bureaucratic problems are going to be resolved. You still feel that way?
The last statement from the Vice President’s office was really encouraging. It said he’s watching this issue and taking care of it. He directed Mr. Mark Green to come and visit and see things with his own eyes. [Note: Green is the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.] I hope good things will come out of it.
I do believe that the Americans want to help. This is the first time the American administration has recognized there are people being persecuted because of their faith.
The challenge right now is to navigate the gap between good will and concrete action, right?
As if the situation you’re facing needed to get any more complicated, it did last September when Kurdistan held a referendum and then declared its independence. It looked like that might create significant new tensions. The borders and airports were closed … we were supposed to come last year, and we couldn’t even get in because of all that. Has that stabilized, and what new challenges has it created for Christians here?
I have to admit, it was, again, a really difficult time for Christians. It also contributed to the economic crisis here in Erbil. People in the civil service, for instance, were only paid four months out of twelve in 2016 and 2017. So far this year, they’ve only been paid twice. It’s affected the economy very badly.
The Kurds did very well in the Iraqi elections [held on May 12], so they’re in a stronger position now.
I’d say we have to rely very heavily on our friends. His Holiness [Pope Francis] has made several pronouncements concerning persecuted Christians, which have helped a lot giving attention. The friendship of our brother and sister Catholics in Europe and the United States is important.
We have to make it important for Christians to play an important role in Iraqi life. We shouldn’t treat ourselves, our faithful, as beggars. We know that God has given each one of them a gift, and he or she should be using it.
Further, Muslims trust our schools and hospitals. This is not something to brag about, but a gift God has given you. If Muslims really trust you, if they give you their children, to raise in your schools, you have to prepare yourself. I would say we just need a portion of help in the beginning, and then it can work.
For people moved by your situation who want to support you, what’s the most concrete thing they can do?
First of all, pray for us and the persecuted Christians. Then, contact the Catholic organizations which have worked with us, and still are, such as Catholic Relief Services, the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need, and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Or, just go to your parish priest and say, ‘I would like to help those persecuted Christians.’
You could also give some time. Come to Erbil, there are several flights here every day from Istanbul, Frankfurt, Vienna. You can land here, and we’ll have you in our archdiocese. For example, someone could give a semester teaching in the schools … we have four schools and a Catholic university with seven majors. There are different ways of giving time. It can be one semester, one year, two years, whatever.
Everyone is welcome, and we have wonderful young people. You’d be joined and welcomed by so many young people who could take you around and be with you. It would be great for everybody. You would be our guest.