Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil - Iraq
In the Footsteps of the Nazarene: The People of the Cross
Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Kurdistan Regional Government is based. It has become the Christian capital of Iraq since the Islamic State began taking the lives of Christians or forcing them to flee their homes in Mosul and Qaraqosh, two cities of ancient Christian tradition.
The Iraqi government, the Iraqi army with Peshmerga (the Kurdish armed forces), along with the coalition, are fighting against DAESH to stop its advances and reclaim certain cities.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Bashar Warda. I am the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, a diocese located in Northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. I am a Catholic bishop, of course, and I had a community – until August 2014 – of 42,000 faithful. With the increased number of refugees, there are now 100,000 Christians in the Province of Erbil.
What is the current situation in Iraq?
We have a long road ahead of us in terms of reclaiming the cities that have been taken over, leaving about 1,600,000 refugees who have had to leave their homes, towns, and cities. Among them are 125,000 Christians fleeing the onslaught of DAESH. They are from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. The majority are now living in Erbil, as well as Duhok in Sulaymaniyah, awaiting the moment in which they will be able to return to their towns and cities.
What about the refugees in Erbil?
We have received 30,000 Christian families in Erbil, 6,000 in Duhok, and 1,000 in Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, for a total of 125,000 refugees. When the Christians first started fleeing their towns, they went directly to the churches. In a matter of three hours, our cathedral – with its adjacent rooms, hallways, and patches of grass – had to provide lodging for 600 families. Later on, we had to open another church and then another, the Shrine of St. Elijah, in addition to 11 public schools. We started receiving refugees on August 7, 2014 around 7 pm and four hours later, the cathedral was packed. We put up a considerable number of tents. After a couple weeks, we started thinking (as a diocese) of how we could help these families transfer from the outside areas, public schools, and open areas to more secure locations. We started renting homes for these families, near the city of Erbil. Towards the end of November, there were no more families living in tents and they all had suitable housing. As a diocese we rented 570 houses and set up about 500 caravans. Our priorities were housing, health care, and education. We opened three clinics offering medical assistance free of charge. We had to work hard to open schools. Thanks to the help of Catholic agencies, Church communities, and many benefactors, we were able to meet all these needs. However, these people’s lives are quite difficult. When they hear that the liberation process will take a long time, that their homes have been ransacked and are being used to store ammunition – well, you can imagine their desolation, after having worked so hard to build them. They experience the hardships of their daily life – providing their families with food, education, everything. This makes the refugees’ lives very hard and it’s not easy for the Church to face this situation either. [In our priestly formation] there haven’t been any special courses on how to care for refugees, so we’re learning as we go. Sometimes we make mistakes, but thanks to these mistakes we’ve learned how to improve the situation. In these regards, I am grateful to God and admire the dedication of those priests and religious sisters who were there from the beginning [of the crisis] living among them. It’s not easy. It’s one thing to be there for an hour or two; it’s another spending the entire day there, looking after the issues that come up every day – so many problems, so many terrifying stories. I also admire the priests and sisters who are themselves refugees. For example, the Dominican Sisters were forced to close eleven missions and are also among the refugees. There are about eighty of them. The Daughters of Mary Immaculate, the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, priests whose parishes have been closed and turned into jails or arsenals, or into mosques, and they’ve been sent photos that are also on the internet. We need prayers, the support of others. We thank God that none of these families has been kidnapped or suffered violence. And that is, of course, thanks to the prayers of our community, as well as our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
Have you seen the refugees grow in their faith?
Simply the fact that they’ve left their towns and cities, their homes, without converting to Islam and without paying the jizya – that is already a sign that they have faith, because they refuse to abandon Christ and pay the jizya because they would like to be Christians with dignity. They have sacrificed a lot – everything – in order to continue being Christians. In spite of all the hardships and dangers, our churches are packed. Now we need more churches. We’ve also had to increment the number of Masses, to meet the increased need. We have lots of people collaborating with catechism classes, lots of young people attending our youth groups.
What have you learned from your work with the refugees?
From the beginning, our work has reminded us that life is much simpler than we think. When we are faced with a challenge like this, we have to reflect on what is truly important in life – what things are the most important. It’s not only about what you have; it’s about who you are – a Christian. That’s the most important. I’m also inspired by what it means to be Catholic. Being Catholic gives us strength in the certainty that there are so many other Catholics and Christians out there who are praying for us, supporting us, showing signs of solidarity. I am truly proud to be Catholic and to have so many people supporting us, not to mention the assistance we’ve received, because the churches have been the only entities to support Christians. The central government did not show much interest in doing so. Kurdistan’s government opened up its doors to us, collaborating, showing interest. However, they themselves have had to admit on several occasions that the Church has been a part of the solution. The two lessons I’ve learned are the simplicity of life and the fortitude that being Catholic gives us.
Do you believe that, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of new Christians”?
Christianity in Iraq dates back to the late 1st century and persecution has been a constant factor over the course of the last twenty centuries. The Archdiocese of Erbil was one of the largest in the Eastern Church, which had many dioceses thanks to the persecution. At one point, we lived 40 years of persecution under the Persian Empire and then when Islam arrived it gave us two options: convert to Islam and pay the jizya or leave, die. They’ve killed so many people and forced others to change religion. No, this is not the first time we’ve had to face persecution. In fact, there have been three moments of persecution in the last hundred years. In 2015, we celebrated the centennial of Safar or Seferberlik, an event which occurred in southeast Turkey and northeast Iraq. We lost three important Chaldean dioceses in that massacre, that genocide which Pope Francis has mentioned on several occasions. Bishops and priests, along with hundreds of thousands of people, were murdered. Many towns were destroyed. And in spite of all this, Christianity was strengthened. So, I am firmly convinced of this quote, because whenever Christians have been persecuted the Church has been strengthened because persecution is a sign of the valuable treasure we have. They would like to rob us of it, but thanks be to God we’ve held on to it. We regret the fact that many of our people have decided to leave the country and live their Christian faith in another place. However, this has contributed to a strong Chaldean community in the diaspora. They are very active - in Detroit, for example. We have 22 young priests and seminarians, all of them born in the United States. However, there are no new vocations to the religious life and the priesthood in the original Chaldean community. It is sad to see them leave the country. However, I know that the blood of the martyrs is what keeps the faith of these Christians in the diaspora alive.
Are you afraid?
Afraid? Yes. DAESH is only 40 kilometers from where I live. And yet, I’ve never imagined them reaching us. But, now, if they come I am ready and I think that my people are giving me the strength. We have to be ready at any moment.
What role does Our Lady play in all this?
As a matter of fact, we are accused of adoring Our Lady more than God. In these hard times, people usually turn to their mother, which is what is happening. The people flock to Our Lady’s shrine and to other churches on her feasts. Walking into any house or caravan or tent, you’re sure to find an image of Our Lady or rosaries. Our people are always close to their Mother in difficult times. We know we are Our Lady’s children and we’re sure that she will always take care of all our needs.
©HM Magazine; º189 March-April 2016