Iraq: ‘We are a martyred and a suffering Church’

IN THE WAKE of Iran’s missile attacks on military bases in Iraq that house US soldiers and amidst ongoing tension between Iran and the US and other crises in the region, Aid to the Church in Need spoke Jan. 9, 2020 with Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq.

Considering the instability in the region that may follow the current tensions, do you fear another exodus of Christians from Iraq?

Since the dawn of ISIS, there have been three key things on the minds of Christians: security, jobs and citizen rights. There are still no jobs since the right to return in May 17.  Unemployment in most villages [on the Nineveh Plains, northern Iraq] is at more than 70 percent. There is no private investment as there is no confidence in the region due to continual war and corruption. Government jobs do not mean that everyone is being paid. For example, if you have a government job, such as teaching, then it is only the older teachers that are being paid. Young graduates work for nothing and may be paid as little as $850 for a year’s work or more.

Mass at St. George’s Church, Teleskof, Nineveh Plains, northern Iraq

People used to marry at a young age here, but they are not getting married as they cannot afford to. Parents want the right to have the dignity of a family, to be able to house, feed, clothe and educate their children. How can they do this when there are no livelihood programs? Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin appealed to the NGOs at his UN speech in September to give more help.

You said a few days ago that Iraqi people have been suffering from proxy wars for decades. At this difficult moment, what do you say to your faithful who courageously stayed in Iraq after the ISIS invasion?

This has been their ancestral home for thousands of years. We are not only people of hope but we are a people of mission. Our tragic history is one of a martyred Church.

We are a suffering Church. We honor the martyrs and their sacrifice.  Jesus never asked or intended us to walk through difficult times alone. Christianity is a faith where Christ can achieve much through us. The Holy Spirit is always there to guide us.

When a people have nothing left to lose, in some sense it is very liberating, and from this position of clarity comes new-found courage. In everything, there is always a blessing. God is victorious when good comes out of evil. 

What is the role of the Church in the Middle East?

Definitely it is a missionary role:  to give daily witness to the teachings of Christ, to show the truth of Christ and to provide a living example to our Muslim neighbors of a path to a world of forgiveness, of humility, of love, of peace.

God and family are the priority in our everyday lives here. They are faithful to His love, in the midst of the danger from external enemies, and from the internal challenges of modern times that threaten to weaken their traditional faith.

Christians in the Middle East are often identified with the West and the US. Do you fear any retaliation against the local Christian community after the Jan. 3 US killing of Iran’s top military leader, Qasem Soleimani?

People always look for an excuse when they do something bad. Therefore, as a minority without rights, we are an easy excuse to blame. Since the evil of ISIS came upon us in 2014, not one international government dollar/euro/penny has come directly to Christians in Iraq, with the notable exception of Hungary and, very recently, USAID. Billions of international government dollars/euros/pennies have been spent in Iraq since and before ISIS. We are happy for that as the country needs to be rebuilt.

Do you believe a trip by the Holy Father to Iraq is still possible?

It will certainly happen. As to when, I leave this to prayer, the will of the Holy Spirit and the sagacity of the people entrusted to do this. In Jesus we trust.