Catholic Archbishop of Erbil: ‘Our Vibrant Church is Dissolving Before Our Eyes’

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Erbil Christians
by Donna Rachel Edmunds
The ancient Middle Eastern churches are “dissolving” thanks to widespread Christian emigration in the wake of persecution at the hands of jihadists, the Archbishop of Erbil has warned.
Church communities in the region are doing their best to house, clothe and educate the families which remain, but the archbishop said it would be remiss of him to encourage his parishioners to stay.

In a testimony sent to the news agency Fides, Mgr Bashar Matti Warda, Archbishop of Erbil in Iraq, said that the “massive immigration” (sic) of Christians currently taking place in the region was leaving the church “much weaker.” He has pleaded for aid from the outside world, echoing pleas made by the Yazidi community who hail from the same region and are also being persecuted.

“For the Chaldean Church, and our sister churches of the East, the persecution our community is enduring is doubly painful and severe. We are personally affected by the need, and by the reality that our vibrant church life is dissolving in front of our eyes.”

The Chaldean Catholic Church, founded between the first and third centuries, was until the 16th century part of Assyrian Church of the East. Once spanning a large geographical area including parts China, India and Central Mongolia, the church was reduced to Assyria following extensive massacres of Assyrians and other Christians by Tamerlane in around 1400.

Now, the Assyrian Christians of all denominations are the only community left on earth who speak Aramaic, the ancient language spoken by Jesus Christ.

“We who are part of the church hierarchy are very often tempted to encourage our parishioners to stay – keep the presence of Christ alive in this special land,” Mgr Warda said. “But truly I and my brother bishops and priests can do no more than to advise young mothers and fathers to take all the necessary considerations into account and to pray long and hard before taking such a momentous, and perhaps perilous, decision. The Church is unable to offer and guarantee the fundamental security that its members need to thrive.”

He said it was “no secret” that hatred of Christians and other minority groups has been growing in recent years. Persecution in the area has been on the increase for at least a decade. In 2007, Father Ragheed Ganni, a 35 year old Chaldean Catholic priest, was murdered along with three of his subdeacons, Basman Yousef Daud, Wahid Hanna Isho, and Gassan Isam Bidawed on a Sunday just after the men had celebrated mass.

“It is difficult to understand this hate,” said Mgr Warda. “We are hated because we persist in wanting to exist as Christians. In other words, we are hated because we persist in demanding a basic human right.”

So far, 5,000 families have left the region in the last year. Some have made it to new homes in America, Europe and Australia, but many more are in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Donations have been made by “benevolent people” to help those who stay, allowing the church to create shelters in church gardens and halls, catechism classrooms, public schools, tents and incomplete building structures. Others have been housed in rented homes, where they live 20-30 people to a house.

With winter approaching, the church also invested in 1700 caravans to house 2,000 refugee families in and around Erbil. “This is far from ideal, but certainly an improvement on the original tents and semi-completed buildings which had been the best we could do for many,” Mgr Warda said

Two medical centres have also been opened in the region. One of those, St Joseph’s clinic, is being run by the Sacred Heart Sisters from India, assisted by 12 young volunteer doctors. The centre spends US$42,000 a month in medication alone, meeting the needs of some 2,000 patients.

The church is also working to meet the educational needs of the children, as it believes that “illiteracy and ignorance are the most dangerous long-term enemy that we face here in the Middle East.”

But asking for help from those outside the region, Mrg Warda said that the church at large was able to do two things: firstly, pray, and secondly, to raise awareness through whatever means possible. “I cannot repeat or loudly enough that our well-being, as a historic community, is no longer in our hands. The future will come, in one way or the other, and for us this means waiting to see what sort of aid (military, relief aid) arrives,” he said.