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ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Fueled by Vision and Faith

The church in Iraq empowers youth for leadership

Editors’ note: To underline the 75th anniversary of the founding of Pontifical Mission, each edition of the magazine in this year of multiple anniversaries will feature at least one article on this special endeavor of the Holy See in the Middle East. 

In the March edition, we feature the efforts of the Chaldean Church in the Kurdistan region of Iraq to rebuild the Christian community and its institutions, and to empower young adults to become leaders in the renewal of their country.

Yousif Gawhar is quick to share about his relationship with Jesus. At 25, like many committed young adult Christians worldwide, he has pondered and questioned who Jesus is. Unlike most of them, his faith took shape in terror’s wake.

Born in Baghdad, he fled the Iraqi capital with his family to Erbil, in the northern Kurdistan region, after his father’s hotel was confiscated in 2005 and their lives were threatened. Mr. Gawhar inherited the faith from his parents but, during years of violent persecution and the time that followed, he grew to make it his own.

Today, he lives in Ankawa, a largely Christian town five miles north of Erbil. Proficient in three languages — Arabic, English and Syriac — he is a senior human resources officer for an international nongovernmental organization.

Mr. Gawhar is a member of the Chaldean Church, an Eastern Catholic church of the East Syriac rite that is indigenous to Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran and attributes its founding to the Apostle Thomas. He is a parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Ankawa, where he volunteers as a catechist and participates in the St. Joseph Apostolic Work Fellowship, a group for young adults, some with faith journeys similar to his.

Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda visits with the staff at Maryamana Hospital, in Ankawa, founded by the Archeparchy of Erbil. (photo: Yad Abdulqader)

Prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, nearly 1.5 million Christians lived in the country, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2022 International Religious Freedom Report on Iraq, and Chaldean Catholics were the most numerous.

However, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians fled the religious persecution that erupted during the Iraq War (2003-2011). Militant groups targeted Christian communities well into 2014, bombing 77 churches and religious buildings and killing at least 1,200 Christians, including Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul and several priests.

The bloodshed and terror worsened in June 2014 with the rise of ISIS, which pillaged Christian towns on the Nineveh Plain, destroyed churches, kidnapped women and killed innocent civilians. A third of Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city, which had a significant Chaldean population — was razed, and 13,220 Christian families from villages captured by ISIS were displaced. These families took what little they could carry and drove or hiked to the border with Kurdistan. There, they were ordered by government security to leave their vehicles and walk the remaining 12 miles to Erbil.

Mr. Gawhar recalls how the young people of Ankawa drove to the checkpoints to collect displaced persons and take them back to Ankawa, where they were sheltered in churches.

The brutal violence of ISIS against Christians, as well as Yazidis, has been recognized by members of the global community as genocide. Today, the total number of Christians in Iraq is less than 1 percent of the country’s population estimated at 42 million. Chaldean Catholics remain the largest Christian community, with an estimated 250,000 faithful, according to the Iraqi Christian Foundation. However, most Chaldean Catholics currently live in the diaspora, with the majority in the United States. Of the Christians who remain in Iraq, most live in Kurdistan.

In March 2021, Pope Francis did what was unimaginable just a few years earlier and made the first-ever papal visit to the country. Standing amid the rubble in Church Square in Mosul, he preached “harmonious coexistence” and prayed for the victims of war. The day prior, he visited with Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, a senior religious leader for Shiite Muslims, who made an uncommon public appearance for the occasion.

The pope’s visit allowed Iraq’s Christian community to display publicly the embers of hope and faith they had been fanning through more than a decade of intense fighting and persecution. 

Raaed Asaad, seated next to a female student, speaks with friends at the Catholic University in Erbil. (photo: Yad Abdulqader)

“It was a message of peace,” says Mr. Gawhar. “It was a message for Christians especially, that they’re not alone.”

The papal visit “gave hope” and had “a big impact, not just on Christian communities, but the whole community, the whole of Iraq,” he adds. “It brought every religion together.”

Mr. Gawhar is among several young Iraqis in the Archeparchy of Erbil who have held on to this spirit of hope, but who also express a measured concern for the future of the country and for the Chaldean community as a church on the periphery. The current culture tends to emphasize problems over solutions, he says, and he is only “10 percent hopeful about the future.”

Still, he says, he is part of “Team Stay.”

“My faith gives me hope for a better Iraq,” he adds. “I cannot imagine leaving Iraq. I will stay here until I’m kicked out.”

Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, C.Ss.R., of Erbil is working to change the culture slowly with a solutions-based approach. Since his enthronement in 2010, he has established several church-run institutions in his archeparchy, including a hospital, four elementary and high schools, the Catholic University in Erbil, and a few media projects, including a radio station. Together, these institutions employ more than 750 people, mostly young adults, aged 23-45, married and single. Archbishop Warda attributes the zeal of the young people employed in this work to providence.

“God wants us to stay [in Iraq] and he is directing the whole work, opening doors for us whenever we think it is almost done,” he says.

Young adults play an important role in the archbishop’s vision for regional peace and stability through education and economic opportunity. The aim is “not just to enhance, but to empower the young people to take their role as leaders and contributors,” he says.

He pointed to the Ankawa Youth Meeting, held each year since 2013, as an important youth ministry effort for Chaldeans in Iraq. Participants leave strengthened by a community of faith and renewed in their spiritual lives by dynamic speakers, time in prayer and fellowship. In 2023, the weekend event drew more than 1,700 Chaldean young people from 60 parishes in seven eparchies.

“Maintaining this gathering for young people brings life to the church,” he says.

As part of the ongoing youth ministry and formation efforts, every parish in the archeparchy also offers regular catechetical instruction to 1,200 children and teens, aged 5-18.

Vina Yousif, 26, has been serving as vice principal for two years at Mar Qardakh International School in Ankawa, founded by the archeparchy in 2010. Almost 600 Christian children receive English-language instruction in the school’s International Baccalaureate program.

She studied catechesis and evangelization at Babel College. Founded in Baghdad in 1991, the college was moved to Erbil for security reasons in 2007. It is affiliated with the Pontifical Urban University in Rome and offers theological formation for both laity and Chaldean Catholic seminarians.

Ms. Yousif leads the St. Joseph Apostolic Work Fellowship. Its members pray together, organize social gatherings, and assist with other needs at the cathedral. At a moment’s notice, these young adults “will drop everything” to volunteer for a shift of 12 hours or more, she says.

“I am so impressed with the young people who are eager to serve the church and serve the community without anything in return,” she says.

“I am so impressed with the young people who are eager to serve the church and serve the community without anything in return.”

Dr. Daniella Hanna, 26, is a junior resident physician at Maryamana Hospital, located across the street from the cathedral in Ankawa. Founded by the archeparchy in 2020 to serve people of all creeds — the hospital chapel and mosque were built side by side — the medical facility offers specialized care, including family medicine, a birthing center and surgery.

Dr. Daniella Hanna examines an elderly patient at Maryamana Hospital
Dr. Daniella Hanna examines an elderly patient at Maryamana Hospital. (photo: Yad Abdulqader)

Dr. Hanna says her faith had grown lukewarm in years past, but a personal crisis led her to recommit her life to Christ.

“He’s my very best friend. He listens to the whispers of my heart. He’s the leader of my life. He’s my shield. He’s my healer,” she says.

“When I had the chance to know Jesus, my outlook on everything changed. My perspective on life changed, and this has impacted my attitude and my behavior as a doctor and toward my patients,” she says.

Her “Christian role,” when faced with the suffering of her patients and their concerned family members, is “to give them hope, to do my best for them,” she says.

“I always believe that we are light and salt,” she says. “Each time I go to a different hospital and different staff, they immediately know that I’m a Christian. They start to tell me about their pain, their bad experiences. They trust me.”

She says the little hope she has for the future of Iraq is in its people and their ability “to give love, to spread love, honesty and kindness among citizens. That’s how we can build a better country and progress forward.”

Raaed Asaad travels 60 miles from Kirkuk, his hometown, to Erbil each way to study international relations at the Catholic University in Erbil (C.U.E.). Founded by the archeparchy in 2015, the university grants four-year degrees and welcomes students of all religious traditions, including Christian, Muslim and Yazidi.

Raised in a culture that places a premium on job attainment, Mr. Asaad says he found at C.U.E. the approach to learning he was seeking — one that privileges and develops freedom of thought and emphasizes the importance of coexistence in a society as diverse as Iraq.

“Our path of learning makes our dreams and shapes our personality,” he says.

He adds that his Christian faith and the Chaldean Church are important to his identity. To be a Christian in Iraq is to be a person of peace, to promote peace and tolerance, and to contribute to society, he explains.

“My aspiration for the Christian community here in Iraq is to have a deep sense of belonging,” he says. “This place, this cradle of civilization faced a lot of atrocities, wars and all of these difficulties, but I hope to keep the belief that this is our place, this is our land.”

Despite the robust church-run institutions intended to sow hope and encourage Christians to remain in Iraq, the fears of Chaldean youth are not lost on Archbishop Warda.

“My aspiration for the Christian community here in Iraq is to have a deep sense of belonging.”

“To be honest, there is always fear about the future,” he says. “Our young people — despite all these anxieties, worries about the future — are full of hope. They love life. They try to make the best of it.”

“They give time to prayer and other church activities and take care of building their capacities to get a good job. They try to better themselves.”

Archbishop Warda adds that his vision for his church includes more than providing good jobs and security for Iraq’s Christian youth. It is in building up young people that the Chaldean Church will endure in Iraq, he says, and with it the hope that only Christ can bring.

“If we left, who would bring Christ to Iraq? Who would be the light of Christ to the people here, if not us?”

The CNEWA Connection

The church in Iraq is small but strong in its witness and in the scope of its services for Christians and non-Christians alike. Today, as through successive periods of instability in the country, CNEWA continues to adapt its support to help the church meet the people’s changing needs. Operating as Pontifical Mission in the Middle East, CNEWA encourages the church’s efforts to form a new generation of Christian leaders through education, by supporting institutions of higher learning, including Babel College in Erbil. CNEWA’s funding also extends to child care programs, care for the elderly and people with disabilities.

To help CNEWA continue this work in Iraq, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or visit cnewa.org/where-we-work/middle-east/iraq/.

Read this article in our digital print format here.

About the Author: Alex McKenna

Alex McKenna teaches in and writes from Erbil, Iraq.

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