Iraq’s Archbishop Warda at CNEWA:
‘Persecution Started on Good Friday’

CNEWA was privileged to welcome to our New York offices on Monday Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq.

CNEWA was privileged to welcome to our New York offices on Monday Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq. The Chaldean Catholic archbishop is visiting several cities in the United States — but his thoughts and prayers right now are with his flock back home, where Iraqi and Kurdish forces are fighting to free Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from ISIS.

Welcomed to our offices by CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar, the archbishop met with CNEWA’s staff to outline the situation that displaced Iraqis are confronting.

Last week, speaking to Catholic News Service, he explained that many are living in relative safety. The archbishop said troops would not find any Christians in and around Mosul, because they fled in 2014, when Islamic State militants gave them a choice to convert to Islam, pay the Islamic jizya tax or be killed.

Many of those Christians fled to Erbil, where the church has been caring for them. The Erbil archdiocese is providing housing to more than 10,000 internally displaced families, but many more live in trailers or open buildings.

Today, in his visit to CNEWA, he spoke compellingly of the great success the church has had in creating schools and educating young people. But he also said more work needs to be done to educate the rest of the world. Many Christians he has met in the United States remain unaware of what their brothers and sisters in the Middle East are going through.

“In my visit here,” he explained, “Americans have no idea what is going on there. Raising awareness is so important. The roots of the Christians is in the Middle East. We have to keep these roots alive. Even if they are small and tiny roots, we have to work to keep them alive so they can give us more vitality. So we need to raise awareness, we need to pray for Christians.”

But, he said, that is only the beginning. Too often, he said, people tend to dwell only on the persecution Christians are facing.

“We can’t be a church that complains all the time about persecution,” he said. “Persecution started on Good Friday. It’s not a new event for being a Christian. It started there and continues. It’s not the first experience, not the only experience. It’s happened in different parts of the world, and churches were able to emerge stronger than before. Aid is needed. We are going to face a new challenge with liberating Mosul, with convincing families to go back again. How are we going to convince them to go back to their villages? It needs a plan. We need some good, concrete plans.”

Speaking to CNS, the archbishop elaborated.

Church people work “to provide the necessary needs — shelter, education, health, food packages — and be with them, and try to comfort them in their material needs and their spiritual and pastoral needs,” the archbishop said. The people need “social intervention and political intervention, economic intervention and, most importantly, how we are going to reconcile all those divided groups which will remain, and they’ve been called to live together?”

The Christians from the region are the original owners of the land, he said. Many have said their neighbors turned against them as ISIS approached.

“We have lived with Islam for 1,400 years. There was a trust in us, and we have to build on this trust — initiatives for the peaceful future,” he told CNS. “We need the outside world to help us” start such initiatives, but they must come from within, because people are suspicious of outsiders.

Archbishop Warda spoke of celebrating the Divine Liturgy with the displaced, calling it “Eucharist in the fullest sense.”

“Everyone has given something valuable and painful to remain Christian,” he said.

Celebrating the liturgy is “different because you are with a suffering people, with persecuted people who made the right choice — Christ — so here we have a church which is alive. Yes, there are faces tired of what’s happening, being persecuted, but every response you get from the community during Mass is full of faith. And you could sense that they made the right choice, to stay Christians and to suffer for their faith,” he said. It adds “a special joy for the Mass.”

CNS produced the video below, in which the archbishop talks about the challenges confronting Christians in his part of the world.

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