Iraqi archbishop: We must ensure ISIS genocide is not repeated

Archbishop Warda Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq speaks at Georgetown University on Feb. 15, 2018. | Jonah McKeown/CNA

Grateful for aid to Iraqi Christian genocide victims, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil says more must be done to ensure the ISIS genocide is not repeated.

“The help was there, and that’s really made a big difference,” Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Archeparchy of Erbil told CNA this week in an interview. He credited international Catholic aid groups, including the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need, and the U.S. bishops’ conference, with helping Christian survivors of ISIS genocide recover and rebuild in Northern Iraq in recent years.

In 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) invaded Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq, displacing hundreds of thousands. The Archdiocese of Erbil, with its seat in Iraqi Kurdistan, received more than 13,000 families and set about trying to provide for their needs.

After ISIS forces were driven back westward in 2016, families began returning to their homes in Nineveh. Of the 13,000 displaced families living around Erbil, around 9,000 of them returned to nine villages in Nineveh, while 2,600 families remained in Erbil; the rest left Iraq, Archbishop Warda said.

He emphasized that more must be done to ensure long-term security and stability for Christians in the region. “We should all work together as collective responsibility on not making it [genocide] happen again,” he said.

The archdiocese has been assisting displaced families for years, providing necessities such as food, shelter, and medicine, but also trying to ensure long-term stability through employment and educational opportunities.

“It’s not about showing the skills of how to care, or showing how generous we are. It’s about the people who were affected by this crisis, the families who were displaced, deprived from everything,” Warda said. “It’s not about us. It’s about them.”

Archbishop Warda spoke with CNA this week at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C. He was a keynote speaker at a plenary session of the gathering, which featured survivors of religious persecution as well as religious and civic leaders from around the world.

In an interview with CNA, he emphasized the need for Iraqi Christians to not just be the recipients of aid, but to “share,” “give,” and actively participate in the life of their communities, in order to have a future in Iraq. For those who have returned to their homes, some villages are still so poor that parishes cannot cover the salary of their priests, he said.

“Those wounds are still bleeding, in a way,” he said of the genocide survivors. “If we want them to stay, dignity should be protected.”

For those families who have not yet returned home, they have cited a lack of security as a primary reason. Armed Shia military groups still patrol parts of the Nineveh Plains, and Warda told CNA in August 2020 that Christians in some areas were subject to physical violence or harassment and militia-armed checkpoints.

Iraqi Christians need support on many levels, he said, including political representation, humanitarian aid, spiritual support, and advocacy.

The men, in particular, need employment and not just financial aid, he said. Men would come to him, saying “I cannot sit the whole day, someone is working at home preparing for me a breakfast. I should deserve my food, my breakfast, my lunch,” the archbishop said.

“Every day I would receive three to five calls and visits to my office, ‘Help me finding a job. Help me finding a job. I am not here for money, I am here for [a] job. Please,’” the archbishop recounted. He established a network with local businessmen to help connect job-seekers with employment opportunities.

The archdiocese has also been investing in education, establishing four Catholic schools including the new St. Thomas Academy of the Chesterton Schools Network, as well as a university and hospital. The institutions together provide more than 460 secure jobs, he said.

“It’s about the quality of education, really, that I would like to bring to my people there,” Archbishop Warda said.  

He said his vision involves Christians as “a creative minority” in Iraq, “a minority of professional people, people of influence when it comes to education, health care.”

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“Talking about the future is a call to make that future, it’s not waiting for someone to make this future happen for you,” he said. “I don’t want them [Christians]to be isolated in an area where they will be taken care of always by NGOs.”

In addition, graduates from the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio have come to the archdiocese as part of a partnership, teaching English, math, and religion at schools. “It’s really a big sign of solidarity,” Warda said.

Pope Francis’ recent visit to Iraq in March “came, really, in a moment when Christians were in desperate need for joy,” he said. The papal visit brought worldwide attention on Iraqi Christians.

“People started to know a lot about Christians in Iraq because of his presence,” Archbishop Warda said of Pope Francis, “about the roots, about the past.”

“We are important for the whole Catholic Church,” he added. “We are not forgotten.”

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