The Chaldean Archbishop of Arbil, Bashar Warda poses for a photo during an interview with AFP in Washington, DC, on November 27,2017.
WASHINGTON – With the Islamic State (ISIS) routed at last, one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East has a chance to reoccupy its ancestral towns.
However, the Chaldean and Syriac people of the Nineveh plain in Iraq need support to rebuild to their homes and are still anxious that fighting will return.
Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, hopes President Donald Trump’s administration will redirect U.S. aid to his persecuted people.
And, in an interview in Washington with AFP, he suggested Christians could help quell tensions on frontline between Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and the ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, have suggested redirecting funds from U.N. aid agencies to Christian charities.
But with almost 20,000 Iraqi Christian families — around 100,000 people — driven from their homes, the bishop is calling for urgent action.
“This is a just case,” he told AFP of his people. “They are persecuted, they are marginalized and they are in need.”
Iraqis of all religions, of course, suffered greatly under the dictatorship of the previous regime and the conflicts that followed in 2003. Christian professionals, religious leaders, and families with money were targeted for kidnapping by extremists intolerant of non-Islamic religions and in need of funds for their movement. Christians began to leave the country.
Bishops, priests and church leaders were kidnapped and murdered.
In August 2004, the first Church bombings took place. Five churches in Baghdad and Mosul were attacked with explosive-laden cars. This resulted in the second wave of Christian migration out of Iraq.
One of the worst assaults on Christians came on Sunday 31 October 2010, when terrorists attacked the ‘Lady of Salvation’ Church in the district of Karrada Baghdad. More than 50 worshippers attending mass were massacred.
More recently, the ISIS extremists in the latest round of bloodletting have targeted the Christians and their neighbors the Ezidi.
An ancient church
Almost 250 years before Christianity was officially declared as the religion of the Byzantine Empire, the Apostle Thomas walked through the region, on his way to India with his disciples, teaching about Christ.
These were the first Christians of Iraq, who constituted the remaining population of ancient Mesopotamia: mainly Assyria in the north and Babylon in central Iraq.
These Christians spoke Aramaic, the language of Christ, and most continue to speak a modernized version of the language today in their homes, schools, and churches.
The Islamic State, the latest incarnation of Sunni Muslim violent extremism, unleashed what U.S. officials have branded a genocidal campaign against non-fundamental Islamists.
For Warda and his supporters in U.S.-based charity and church movements, it is thus only fair to ask Washington to treat their case differently not only because of their minority status, but also lack of political clout compared to the majority groups.
Kurds have an autonomous region and a Peshmerga force that shielded themselves from the recent violence.
The country’s Arab Shia majority is the focus of the Baghdad government’s rebuilding efforts and receives aid from nearby Iran.
And even the Sunni Arabs, with greater political representation in government, will be able to count on some support from Iraq and wealthy Gulf countries.
But the Christians — and the Ezidis — will be relatively on their own, Warda warns, unless foreign donors step up to the plate.
Already, Hungary and Poland have contributed to the cause, and the community now has high hopes that Trump’s administration will assist.
“You are not just helping them because they are Christians, but because they have been persecuted and left behind,” he says.
And Warda’s trip to Washington is not just to tout a collection plate: he will argue that working with his network is a sound investment.
Haley and Pence have made clear that they have concerns about the efficiency of U.S.-led efforts — but the church is hard at work.
Already, Warda says, some 4,000 families have returned to rebuild the town they call Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest mainly Christian community.
However, smaller Christian villages on what is now the frontline between the forces of the Baghdad government, the Iran-supported Iraqi militia, and the Peshmerga are at greater risk.
One village where 60 homes had been rebuilt was abandoned a second time when these forces, once allies against ISIS, clashed.
In another, the town of Telekuf-Tesqopa or Tel Eskof, 900 recently returned families live with their bags packed in case trouble flares again.
Here again, however, Warda sees hope that with support, the church — however marginal it is in strategic terms — can help Iraq.
The Baghdad-born cleric, now based in Erbil the capital of the Kurdistan region, is in contact with churchmen in the Iraqi capital, too.
On at least one occasion, when tempers frayed between Baghdad-aligned forces and the Peshmerga, Christians have sought to cool tensions.
“So that was because of the church,” he said.
The Christians are grateful for the shelter they have received in Kurdish territory after the ISIS militants overran the plains around Mosul.
Now they are keen to return home, where security permits, and they have no wish to be drawn into fighting between Erbil and Baghdad.
“It’s a political issue, and we hope that it will be solved via dialogue,” he said. “Everyone knows violence is not the way to settle these issues.
“In fact any military act in these areas would damage the whole reputation of the area and this would mean that the Christians would leave.”
Hopefully, Warda prays, 2018 will be the year when those left behind will rebuild their homes, their farmlands and centuries-old churches along the Tigris river.