Don’t Forget the Faithful in Iraq, Plead Local Christian Leaders
After years of violent conflict in Iraq, leaders say Christian families need support. They ask for prayers as the Western world heads into the holiday season.
On Tuesday, Christian leaders visiting from Iraq urged Americans not to forget religious minorities overseas facing crisis.
“We are not asking for a privileged life,” said Archbishop Bashar Warda, who has served in northern Iraq for 18 years. “We are asking just to give us a chance to live.” As head of the archdiocese of Erbil, Warda oversees relief efforts to over 15,000 people displaced by conflict.
He and others spoke to reporters at a Washington, D.C. press briefing convened by the Knights of Columbus, a leading Catholic service organization. Since 2014, the group has provided $17 million to assist persecuted believers in the Middle East. The war-torn nation of Iraq has recently faced violent conflict on multiple fronts.
“We know how tense the Middle East is with so many political disputes,” noted Warda. “We are there for a mission. Once these disputes are settled peacefully, this will protect the minorities who are today collateral damage.”
Attorney Stephen Rasche spoke in his capacity as counsel for the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, a collective effort of Catholic churches in Iraq’s Nineveh province. Bordering Syria to the west, Nineveh has faced the brunt of ISIS terrorism over the past four years.
“In 2003, there were upwards of one and a half million Christians in Iraq,” said Rasche. “Today, there are somewhere between 175,000 and 300,000. A critical mass of people is required to have a viable community. We may not be far from the extinction of Christians in Iraq.”
The Crisis After ISIS
Since early 2013 when ISIS emerged, ten million people have been displaced in Iraq and Syria. Archbishop Bashar Warda noted that many fled because of their faith.
“It was a very terrifying experience for Christians to be asked to convert to Islam,” recalled Warda. “They decided to leave. They came with nothing to our churches and parishes. They had to learn how to live as refugees inside Iraq. Yet they never lost hope that one day they would be able to go back again.”
As coalition forces won victories against ISIS this past summer, Warda helped families make the trek home. They weren’t prepared for what they found. “When we went back, everything was destroyed,” he said. “Schools, clinics, roads, electricity, water supply — everything. 14,000 homes were damaged, burned and looted.”
The external threat of ISIS has been compounded by internal rumblings of civil war. After serving years on the front lines against ISIS, the Kurdish community in northern Iraq has sought greater autonomy from central Iraq. Their September 25 referendum vote garnered majority support in the region. Yet dreams of Kurdish independence soon turned dark.
“Before the referendum, all our liberated villages were [given] attention by aid agencies,” noted Warda. “They used to travel to Erbil and see these villages. They would evaluate the situation themselves and provide help. We as a church were there to help others.”
Within days of the vote, Iraq partnered with Iranian-backed militias to exert force against the Kurdistan region. They enacted a travel ban, cut off oil revenue and even censored media according to local reports.
“Closing airports has very much affected this help,” said Warda. “Now we have no one in these villages. We are afraid this will affect the level of help. That’s why we have requested from the government of Baghdad to provide more assistance to those who would like to visit and provide help. It cannot be delayed.”
“As we end this chapter of displacement, today everyone is full of hope that some help could be provided soon,” said Warda. His ally Rasche echoed the archbishop: “The hour is well past midnight for Christians to return to Nineveh.”
Rebuilding for the Future
Stephen Rasche noted their initial focus is to provide power, water and housing in the region. “Without those building blocks, you really can’t do anything else,” he said. “You need to have people in their homes before they can start looking to rebuild their community.”
To the east in Erbil, Archbishop Warda believes their success under duress provides a model for how to rebuild. “If they would let us live, we would be ambitious,” said Warda. “In 2015, in the middle of crisis, we opened a new university in Erbil. We started 14 schools in Erbil just during the past three years. We are about to open a new hospital.”
While representing a Christian community rooted in Iraq since the first century, Warda emphasized how all people benefit from their efforts. “This university, this hospital, these schools are not just for Christians — they are meant for everyone,” he said. “We are there to contribute and build a civilization as our ancestors did.”
In his remarks, Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson noted with optimism a recent announcement by Vice President Mike Pence. On October 25 at a gathering of religious freedom advocates, Pence announced that relief funding would be funneled directly to Mideast groups in need. The policy change will bypass the United Nations, which he said has been ineffective in distributing funds.
The Nineveh Reconstruction Committee may receive some of this public funding. Their largest grants thus far have been $2.2 million from Hungary and $2 million from the Knights of Columbus. Over 23,000 Christians have returned to the region, yet many remain refugees. More than 10,000 homes have yet to be rebuilt.
They are prepared to expand their work, according to Rasche. “We’ve been getting families back in homes since last spring,” he said. “We have not been waiting for governments around the world or institutional aid providers to decide what their plans are. We’re actively engaged on the ground and have been for some time.”
Bridging Divisions to Renew Trust
The Trump Administration has announced steps to ensure Middle East religious minorities remain a priority. In mid-December, Vice President Mike Pence will visit Egypt and Israel. The trip will include high-level meetings and a public address to the Israeli Knesset on December 18.
Knowing the complexity of the Mideast, panelists steered away from specifics when asked about the Pence trip. “We ask the American government [to] use their influence to help bring stability in all these disputes,” said Archbishop Warda. “We are asking for the minimum, which is a sense of security. This is the big hope.”
Grave threats to Iraqi peace and security remain. National security analysts assert that the regional ambitions of Iran are suspect. Their actions to suppress the Kurds of northern Iraq have been only the latest indicator.
Rasche indirectly addressed the situation. “We’re against all outside actors who want to encourage instability,” he says. “We want a democratic government, responsive to the needs of the people. Anything that leads to instability concerns us. We look to the United States to provide a counterbalance in its policies.”
Ties must be strengthened between factions within Iraq, stated Archbishop Warda. “As Christian leaders, we have called for dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil,” he said. “All of our villages in the Nineveh plain are in the disputed area. So it’s in the interest of everyone to settle these issues.”
“We hope it’s not just words,” he concluded. “We hope these will be translated to actions.”