Iraqi archbishop urges solidarity with suffering Christians in his country

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Mark Zimmermann, Catholic Standard
CS PHOTO BY MICHAEL HOYT During a recent visit to Washington, Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq, said Christians there are experiencing a genocide at the hands of Islamic State militants.
The ongoing slaughter and persecution of Christians in Iraq by Islamic State militants should be defined and recognized as genocide by the world community, an archbishop from Iraq said during a visit to Washington.

“It’s genocide. It has all the facts, events, stories and experiences to meet the definition of genocide,” said Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, Iraq, whose diocese in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq has, with the help of Catholic relief agencies, provided shelter, food, medical care and educational services to an influx of tens of thousands of Christian refugees fleeing rampaging ISIS forces.

Last summer, after ISIS seized control of Mosul – Iraq’s second largest city – Christians there were faced with a choice of converting to Islam, paying a severe tax, being killed, or fleeing for their lives. Archbishop Warda said that Christians there were given three days to decide how they would respond to that life or death ultimatum. After Christians fled the city, leaving their homes and livelihoods behind, they had to go through ISIS-controlled checkpoints, where their money and documents were taken from them.

“When you demand people to change their faith or religion, pay taxation, or leave everything, or otherwise face a sentence of death, there’s no options left,” said Archbishop Warda.

After the Islamic State occupation, an estimated 125,000 Christians fled Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plain region. Mosul, which had an estimated 35,000 Christians before the Islamic State took over the city, now has no Christians living there.

Recognizing the Islamic State’s persecution of Christians in Iraq as genocide, the archbishop said, would mean “those people are not forgotten. They are remembered and acknowledged. Their sacrifices and experiences are not forgotten. We’d be giving them just status, to help the world not repeat (this). We’re living in the 21st century, and repeating the same mistakes, the same sins of the past… Everyone is watching. We have to do something.”

According to the Knights of Columbus, which recently announced a humanitarian drive to support the persecuted Christians in Iraq, more than 100,000 refugees now crowd Erbil, which is located about 50 miles from Mosul.

That flood of refugees into Erbil and surrounding areas – characterized as IDPs, or Internally Displaced Persons, because they were still within their home country – amounted to 20,000 families, many of whom had walked eight to 10 hours through the desert.

“The first days, those people slept in gardens, classrooms, halls, in the main church,” said Archbishop Warda. Tents were set up, and some Christians opened up their homes to offer them free shelter.

The Iraqi archbishop said that the Catholic Church in Erbil immediately began providing for the pastoral needs of the people, working with Catholic aid agencies to provide rental housing for 2,000 displaced families, and prefabricated dwellings for another 2,000 families. The Church established two medical clinics to provide fee health care services to the refugees.

“With the help of Aid to the Church in Need and the Italian Bishops’ Conference, we’ve built 10 schools for the refugees, and we are planning to open a new Catholic university in Erbil,” he said. The Church has also provided the displaced families with youth camps and catechism classes.

Reflecting on the difficulties faced by the refugees and their families, Archbishop Warda said “they live in a very difficult, dehumanized situation,” sometimes with 10 people sharing a room or with several families sharing a home, and with the knowledge that they have left their homes and jobs behind.

“We cannot forget that we are living in a region that is burning… Our people are imprisoned by their worries,” he said.

And yet in the face of the anxiety that the Iraqi Christians face in their present lives and in worrying about the future, Archbishop Warda said they often say, “We thank God for everything. He is testing us for this difficult time.”

Archbishop Warda said the Iraqi Christian refugees are conscious of God’s providence, and that despite losing everything, they still have their faith, and they and their families are safe.

“To choose Christ, to choose to be Christian, is a sign of hope and courage. Yes, it comes with a cross,” he said.

Earlier that morning during his visit to Washington, Archbishop Warda had celebrated a Mass at the chapel in the convent of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts. One of the sisters in that religious order, Sister Dede Byrne – a general surgeon who serves as the clinical director at the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington – had recently participated in a medical mission to Erbil as part of the Global Surgical and Medical Support Group, joining volunteer doctors to serve the refugees and displaced persons there.

In his homily, Archbishop Warda noted the “open hearts of so many good people around the world” who had reached out to Iraq’s suffering Christians, and how their outreach reflected Jesus’s teaching on the great commandment. “The right choice is always to love God, love your neighbor, and be a living commandment among the people,” he said.

Later, in an interview with the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington and the Arlington Catholic Herald of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, Archbishop Warda spoke about how Iraq’s Christians had experienced God’s grace through the support of fellow Christians and the help of volunteer doctors from around the world, and by priests and sisters from Iraq who put aside their own pain “to be with the people, listen to them, care for them, and pray for them.”

The archbishop characterized those acts of love as “miracles,” experienced by the refugees every day.

“The caring hands of God are present there. Amidst the difficulties, God is working. We are living in a very long Good Friday, but it is not the end of the story. We can sense Easter coming. At the end of the day, we still say, ‘Thank God for everything,’” he said.

Some say that there is not hope for Christians, or Christianity, in the Middle East, but Archbishop Warda does not subscribe to that belief. “For me, hope is not a teaching, it’s a way of living,” he said, pointing to the Church’s work in providing health services and opening schools. “Building a school is a way of saying, ‘We are here, and we have a future. A school is a place where people can get together – Christians, Muslims and Yezidis – and learn together.”

The ongoing prayers and support of Christians around the world are crucial, , the archbishop said. Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl has called on national leaders and the world community, and people of faith, not to remain silent or indifferent to the suffering of Iraq’s persecuted Christians.

Archbishop Warda said, “We have an obligation to care for one another… We have as a Church to be in communion, in full communion, with others… For us, when we know we are in the prayers of our brothers and sisters around the world, it makes a difference.”

The Iraqi Catholic leader said that he hopes that the next president of the United States, whoever he or she might be, will have a clear policy on the Middle East and the plight of Christians there, and he hopes that will be an important issue in the upcoming election campaign.

Emphasizing the need for solidarity with Iraq’s persecuted Christians, Archbishop Warda said, “It’s important to tell the story. It’s important to remember the victims, the persecuted. This would help the whole world not to repeat it again.”
(Next week: Volunteers from the Washington area reflect on a recent medical mission to Iraq.)