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Iraqi archbishop discusses desperate plight of Iraqi Christians

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil, Iraq, gestures alongside Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, during an Aug. 4 news conference at the Knights of Columbus 133rd Supreme Convention in Philadelphia. (CNS photo/Matthew Barrick, Knights of Columbus)

Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda is currently in the U.S. raising awareness of the desperate humanitarian crisis affecting Christians in Iraq. He attended the Knights of Columbus 133rd Supreme Convention held Aug. 4-6 in Philadelphia, Pa.

Also in attendance was Melkite archbishop of Aleppo, Syria, Jean-Clement Jeanbart. NCR interviewed Jeanbart about the situation in Syria in April.

At the convention, the Knights of Columbus announced the establishment of a Christian Refugee Relief Fund. To date, the organization has sent over $3 million to Iraq and Syria to aid Christian refugees.

Warda’s archdiocese of Erbil, located in northern Iraq, has received thousands of internally displaced Christians fleeing for their lives from Islamic State, or ISIS, attacks in the ancient city of Mosul and in the Ninevah Plain.

Prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is estimated that some one million Christians lived in Iraq out of a population of 25 million. Today, it is estimated that the number is approximately 300,000. In Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, there were 60,000 Christians prior to the U.S. invasion. Today, there are none.

In a telephone interview with NCR, Warda shared his insights on the situation in Iraq.

NCR: Will you give an overview of the plight of Christians in Erbil today?

Warda: Being a refugee inside your own country is a tough situation. We have, for example, 2,000 families living in 3-foot by 6-foot pre-fabricated homes, awaiting news of liberation but word does not come. Two to three families share a home, large families. They have no salaries, no income. For over a year now, we have families learning how to survive on less and less income. There is a total of 1.4 million refugees. Life is so difficult. There are psychological pressures on families that need to be addressed. We are not trained for this situation. It is not a situation we ever imagined we’d be in. This is the black side of the situation.

On the bright side, we hold onto our faith. Priests and sisters are doing wonderful work with the refugees. But we are experiencing a long Good Friday, as we hope for a new Easter.

How does the church function in such a chaotic environment?

Working with Catholic bishops, we created camps for the refugees. The Kurdistan Regional Government gives us a spot of land and we create pre-fabricated homes. We have camps with 200 families, 300 families, 400 families and 1,000 families. We also will rent existing homes for refugees. Some refugees live in public schools.

In each refugee camp we assign a priest and two or three sisters to work with the refugees, celebrating Mass, hearing and listening to the refugees, offering some pre-counseling. Every camp has a place of worship. Also we have opened our churches for people to live and worship. Also the refugees are offering pastoral care to other refugees. The refugees highly appreciate the work of the priests and sisters. Often the people will demand that they have a priest. Some will say “We don’t have a priest,” before they ask for food, shelter and medicine.

In addition to the aid from the Knights of Columbus, from whom do you receive aid?

First and foremost is the Aid for the Church in Need, who has given us $12 million. We also receive aid from an Asian charity, the Italian episcopal conference, Caritas International, Caritas Italy, CNEWA [New York City-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association], Catholic Relief Services, and dioceses around the world often give directly to us, and many times episcopal conferences will give to aid organizations in their own country who are working in Iraq, like German bishops work with Caritas Germany and other German charities, and the French bishops do the same. We also receive donations directly from parishes in the U.S. Religious orders like the Redemptorists donate to us.  Also the Chaldean churches and communities around the world send us donations.

Practically speaking, how do funds get to you in Erbil?

Often the funds go to the apostolic nuncio’s [bank] account and then get transferred to the archdiocese account. We have a finance committee and auditing and reporting. One hundred percent of the donations get used and there is little-to-no administrative cost. Many young people serve as volunteers packaging food, calling families. The food packages cost $60 and we pay $2 for the packaging bag, transportation and to pay the young people for the downloading of the trucks.

How are the donations used?

I have three priorities. First is to provide shelter. The Knights of Columbus has given us $2 million for low-cost housing. I am very grateful to the Knights of Columbus. This also creates needed jobs for the refugees. We are awaiting the certificate for the land granted to us by the Kurdistan government.

Second is creating a health program to buy medicines for chronic diseases. We spend $42,000 a month on medicines. The young people who are doctors are volunteers in two clinics.

The third priority is education. Aid for the Church in Need helped build eight schools. CNEWA has helped furnish the schools. Two French aid organizations built two schools.

We invite the donor organizations to come and visit us. See how we are using the donations. This happened in December 2014 when we distributed food and Christmas gifts. Caritas Italy is focused on providing food in this month of August. We want people to visit, see the people, and bring back their stories.

What is your relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government?

Our relationship with the Kurdistan, Erbil and Mosul governments are very good. The government leaders go with me when we distribute food, to our schools. The prime minister has appointed a cabinet member to be responsible for these issues. We work with Muslim clerics and lay people. This past Ramadan [a month of fasting by Muslims worldwide], two camps with Christian refugees received food donations from Muslims.

What steps are being taken, if any, to protect the patrimony of the church in Iraq?

Years ago, Dominican priest Najeeb Michaeel started to preserve and digitize valuable manuscripts. Each bishop is responsible for manuscripts and we have been able to save them. We are scanning materials like baptismal certificates and marriage certificates and keeping them safe. Of course, we can’t do anything about the destruction of shrines and crosses being replaced by the Da’ish. [According to a BBC report, Da’ish” or “Daesh” a seemingly pejorative term that is based on an acronym formed from the letters of the name in Arabic, “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham.” Otherwise, the militants are referred to either as ISIL, which stands for “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” or ISIS, which stands for the “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” or “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”]

Do you see any hope for Christians to return to their homes in Mosul and Ninevah Plains?

It is a wish. When? We cannot say. It is much easier to go to the Ninevah Plains than to Mosul itself, which makes life difficult for Christians. It is almost a year now and there has been no resistance to Da’ish. The Kurdistan government will not go into Mosul on its own, but is willing to participate in an attack on Mosul.

What message do you want to share with the American people?

Keep praying for us. Keep telling the story of our persecution. Our people cannot be forgotten. When I hear from people telling me that they are praying for us it is very encouraging. Question U.S. policy in Iraq. Today it’s the persecution of Christians. Tomorrow it will be other people. Humanity cannot stand another genocide, yet people are still being persecuted.

What message do you want to share with the U.S. government?

You need to treat the cancer first. You need to treat Da’ish in a way that includes other considerations. You need to adjust policies and use your influence to bring all parties together. You need to be aware of long-term implications of your policy. The U.S. government should be responsible for its citizens traveling to Iraq and fighting with Da’ish. This is a global phenomenon of foreign fighters joining ISIS. Any responsible government should take responsibility for its citizens [joining ISIS]. It’s unfortunate for a Catholic bishop to say that military action is needed, but in a very limited and targeted way to fight ISIS. But such action needs a package of solutions like building peace, bridges of understanding. Only military action? No. We need a package of solutions for treating and dealing with Da’ish.

How do you give hope to your people that one-day peace will come?

Hope to me is not a teaching or a dogma. It is a way of life. Some people think I’m crazy to build homes, hospitals, churches when only 90 meters away there is destruction and uncertainty. We are a people of God. How do we believe God is victorious, if you don’t act like God is victorious today? We have to make the Christian faith and values breathe. We extend the hand of peace, love, not just to those who persecute us but to those also who have betrayed us. We have to be grateful even if it sounds crazy.

[Tom Gallagher is a regular contributor to the NCR and writer of the Mission Management column. He has been a member of the Knights of Columbus since the mid-1980s and founded the Knights of Columbus Council #9542 at his alma mater, The Catholic University of America, and later served as a district deputy overseeing the Washington, D.C., college councils. He is a member of Greenwich, Conn., Council #39. His article titled, “We Are All Called to be Missionaries of Charity,” a reflection on his work on behalf of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s religious order, the Missionaries of Charity, appeared in the Knights of Columbus magazine, Columbia, in 2006.]