Iraqi archbishop pleads with Trump: ‘We need your help now’

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Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
President Trump and the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, Monsignor Bashar Warda (Photos: Alex Brandon/AP, Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — A senior Iraqi Catholic leader is urgently pleading with President Trump to provide millions of dollars in aid to rebuild thousands of Christian homes destroyed in the war with the so-called Islamic State, saying the survival of that religious minority may be at stake.

“We need more than words, it’s time for action,“ the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, told Yahoo News in an interview Monday conducted in a hotel in Washington, D.C.

Asked what he would say if he could meet face to face with Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, Warda replied: “We need your help now, not tomorrow, not to think about it, not to consult your adviser — with all my respect.”

Warda said the homes of 14,000 Christian families in Nineveh province were damaged or destroyed during the years of conflict against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and that he hopes to gather about $262 million in aid to rebuild them as well as to restore vital infrastructure — like roads, electricity and water. He said he has looked overseas for help, because: “The Iraqi government had said … that we don’t have money” for the effort. The final tally of destroyed residences is likely to be higher because church authorities have not yet gained access to the major Iraqi city of Mosul. In all, an estimated 100,000 Iraqi Christians left Nineveh, most of them finding refuge in Kurdish enclaves like Erbil, where the archdiocese has played a central role in feeding, clothing and housing them.

Trump promised during the 2016 campaign to help Christians persecuted in the Middle East. His team has repeated the finding of the Obama administration that ISIS violence against Christians amounted to genocide.

But at an Oct. 3 House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing, Stephen Rasche, legal counsel and director of internationally displaced persons in Warda’s archdiocese, testified: “I regret to say that we have still yet to receive any form of meaningful aid from the U.S. government.”

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U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski, left, shakes hands with Archbishop Bashar Warda during his visit to the Chaldean Church in Erbil, Iraq. (Photo: Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

Rasche singled out career officials, rather than Trump aides, for blame. “While we have found the political appointees much more willing to help us since January, the fact is that even after the better part of a year, they have been unable to move the bureaucracy to take meaningful action,” he said.

Iraqi Christians have complained that international aid efforts put a priority on helping those in the greatest need and that, despite the finding of genocide, do not target religious communities. They would prefer that money to rebuild their communities be channeled through local nongovernmental organizations, notably the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, which groups together Nineveh’s various Christian churches.

On Oct. 25, their efforts got a boost when Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech to Christian leaders in Washington in which he announced that Trump had ordered the State Department “to stop funding ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations” and instead “provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID,” the U.S. Agency for International Development.

But the money has not flowed in, leaving the return of Christian families to their homes in doubt. And with Iraq’s Christian population already at a low ebb — an estimated 300,000 prior to the war with ISIS, with unreliable figures today — the country may be at what Rasche in October called “a critical historical inflection point” that will decide whether the Christian community survives in Iraq.

“The delay is not helping us,” Warda said.