(The Criterion, By Sean Gallagher)
Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil in northern Iraq pauses and places his face in his hands when asked how his faith has been challenged and spurred on in the crisis that he has helped manage over the past year.
In the summer of 2014, Islamic State militants conquered the nearby city of Mosul, with its large and historic Christian community. Later, they took a series of historic Christian villages in the Plain of Nineveh north of Mosul.
The Christians of Mosul and the villages were told to convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, die or leave with nothing.
Some 125,000 Christians, including three bishops, 50 priests and 90 religious sisters, chose the last option. Many of them flooded Irbil to the east as refugees.
Archbishop Warda spoke about his experiences of caring for the suffering faithful, his gratitude for the support that Catholics across America and around the world have given to the Church in Iraq, and his hopes for its future in an interview with The Criterion when he visited Indianapolis recently.
Earlier in the month, he took part in the 133rd Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus in Philadelphia on Aug. 4-6. The Knights of Columbus has contributed much to support persecuted Christians in Iraq. He came to Indiana to visit Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin. Both were previously Redemptorist priests before being chosen to serve as bishops. During his visit, he also was a concelebrant at the archdiocese’s annual Golden Wedding Jubilee Mass on Aug. 23 at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. (See related story here)
Archbishop Warda said that 620 families were initially housed on the grounds of the cathedral in Irbil where he lived.
“It was a very difficult moment,” he said. “I was sleeping in a very comfortable room while others were there [with nothing]. So, many times I chose to go and just walk around, tell a joke, listen and just change the atmosphere.”
While on the outside he tried to encourage the persecuted Christians whom he had welcomed to Irbil, within his heart he would frequently “quarrel with God.”
“I don’t understand what he is doing when I look at what has happened in the region,” Archbishop Warda said. “I quarrel with him every day.”
However, the arguments take place within his intimate relationship with God, one that, with the help of grace, withstands even the previously unimaginable challenges to his faith that he has faced over the past year.
“Before going to sleep, I usually hand all my crises, wishes, thoughts and sadness to him, so I can at least have some rest,” Archbishop Warda said. “The next day, I usually wake up with his providence that I would never dream about.”
Looking back over the year since thousands of persecuted Christians sought refuge in Irbil, Archbishop Warda sees the care of God coming to suffering believers more effectively than he could have ever devised himself, in part through local lay and religious Catholics and organizations like the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Aid to the Church in Need.
“[God] did it in a way that a state could not really offer to its citizens in such a situation,” Archbishop Warda said. “He did it through the Church and through the generosity of so many people.”
His own faith is bolstered as well when he sees the undaunted faith of persecuted Christian refugees.
“People come and tell their stories of persecution and how they were really terrified, having to walk eight to 10 hours during the night,” Archbishop Warda said. “In the end, they would tell you, ‘Thank God we are alive. Nushkur Allah. We thank God for everything.’ That’s the phrase they end with. That’s strengthening, in a way.”
In contrast to the goodness he sees in the suffering faithful that have filled Irbil, Archbishop Warda recoils when he describes the Islamic State, which he often refers to by their Arabic “criminal name,” “Daesh.”
“Daesh is evil,” he said. “The way they slaughter, the way they rape, the way they treat others is brutal. They have a theology of slaughtering people.”
And he knows that the evil that overtook Mosul could also strike Irbil.
“It’s quite possible, but the coalition, led by the Americans, has stopped Daesh from advancing,” Archbishop Warda said. “This has given some sense of security to the people. But Daesh is just 40 kilometers from Irbil. It’s not far away. Anything could happen.”
This uncertainty and the horrific experiences of the past year have led many persecuted Christians who came to Irbil to move on to refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey with the intention of emigrating out of the Middle East for good—something that saddens Archbishop Warda.
“They lost trust in the land and their neighbors,” he said. “Everyone has betrayed them and treated them as a treasure to be stolen, took their houses and property. Their daughters were under threat at any time.”
The thousands who remain in Irbil have moved from makeshift shelters on Church properties and in public schools to prefabricated houses and pre-existing homes provided or rented by the Church. Some want to stay in the region, and are seeking jobs to support their families.
“All of them are waiting for Mosul to be liberated so that they can go back again and start their life again,” Archbishop Warda said.
An important step that he thinks could galvanize the international community to help the persecuted Christians of Iraq is for national leaders to join with Pope Francis and recognize what is happening there as a genocide.
“What is happening in the Middle East against Christians is a genocide,” Archbishop Warda said emphatically. “This is very important for us. You cannot accept this in the 21st century while everyone is watching. I would like the Americans to take responsibility.
“Do not wait another 20 years and look back to what happened and say, ‘Well, I’m sorry that we did not do something really decisive.’ ”
Having the actions taken against Christians in the region categorized as a genocide would, in Archbishop Warda’s view, help “do justice for the persecuted people.”
“Their rights would be preserved,” he said. “The experience would not be forgotten. And there are legal issues that would follow for the people. They could go back again to their lands. At least people would have a hope that what they’ve worked all their lives for is still there, protected by the law.”
Archbishop Warda also argued that the international community has a duty to stop the Islamic State since many of its fighters have come from countries around the world.
“It’s not a regional problem anymore,” he said. “We have 5,000 fighters from all over—from America, from England, from France. Everyone is responsible. These countries are responsible for their citizens. They have to go there and pick them up and get them back. Do something. They are really hurting [our people].”
Archbishop Warda spoke in frustration about the lack of recognition of the persecution by Muslim countries in the Middle East.
“When most of these Muslim countries speak about what Daesh has been doing, they always speak about the reputation of Islam,” he said. “Please speak about the victims. The victims are missing from their statements. That’s really annoying. It looks like those countries are saying, ‘If Daesh will not film their atrocities, they’re O.K.’
“When they condemn Daesh and also do justice to the victims, mentioning them, feeling sorry for what they have been through, then there would be a possibility of rebuilding trust again. Without acknowledging what has happened makes it difficult.”
Archbishop Warda spoke in gratitude for the support that Catholics in America and elsewhere have given to the Church in Iraq. He hopes that it will continue, beginning with prayer.
“It is a very powerful help when we receive letters from priests and people and bishops from America and Europe and Australia and Canada telling us that we are remembered in their prayers. We are persecuted, but not forgotten,” he said. “We share this news with our people. We tell them that they are praying for us.”
Archbishop Warda also wants Catholics in America to be advocates for the Church in the Middle East with their political leaders, seeking from them a clear plan for protecting religious minorities in the region.
“I know that ordinary Americans do care. We’ve seen that a lot,” Archbishop Warda said. “But you need to ask your politicians about this, and push the point to name what has happened as a genocide. This is quite important. And I am sure that they will not spare any efforts in helping.
“I know being a Catholic here is also difficult. But there is a witness with blood there.” †