WASHINGTON, D.C. — Three and a half years ago, after the Islamic State took over Mosul and declared its caliphate from the city’s Grand al-Nuri Mosque, Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil suddenly found himself the chief caretaker of 15,000 Iraqi Christian families who had sought refuge in his archdiocese in Kurdistan.
While 1.8 million Iraqis and Syrians had also sought safe haven in Kurdistan, Iraqi Christians, reluctant to live amidst ISIS sympathizers, have avoided the United Nations-run refugee camps and instead sought refuge with Archbishop Warda.
Since then, he and his priests have provided food, shelter and medicine and every material need as well as spiritual sustenance for the Christian and Yazidis and other refugees under his care. Now, with the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, Archbishop Warda is working with Christian aid groups to help them return to the their villages which are their ancestral homes.
On Monday evening, here in Washington, DC, to kick off the “Week of Awareness for Persecuted Christians,” Warda told a group of priests and seminarians at the Dominican House of Studies that his years at the seminary hadn’t prepared him for this great challenge.
“None of us, as you know, had been trained to be a humanitarian agency in that sense, but we have learned how to care for the people. Because the needs were food, shelter and medicine,” he said.
“In our area the priests, the church, and the bishop are the point of reference, if they need a job, if they need food, if they need [automobile] bumpers … for every thing, they come to the church.”
Thanks to the generosity of the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need, Catholic Relief Services, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (which together with the Knights of Columbus organized the Week of Awareness), Archbishop Warda told the group that he has been able to care for the refugees and begin to facilitate their return to their homes.
“Over the last three years the church has provided shelter, food, and medicine, and built schools for the refugees, and it all came from Christians and churches. We haven’t received a dollar from any of the states concerning Christians,” said Warda.
During his meeting with the young seminarians, Warda confessed that while he feels blessed today, things looked quite bleak three years ago, when thousands of families arrived at his doorstep, with only the clothes on their backs, having walked for over 12 hours in search of safety.
“People were asking ‘Where is God in all of this? We’ve done nothing, and we choose to be Christians. We’ve been persecuted, and for what?’” he said.
“To be honest, it was a really difficult time. It is very difficult when you sleep in your comfortable bed, and you’re surrounded by 700 families.” he said. “To know that just beside your room there is a tent with a family of 5 or 6 — so many times you have to leave the room and go and just be with them, and chat with them, and make some jokes. It was not easy to sleep in those days.”
The generosity of Christian groups around the world, he said, renewed his faith.
“Suddenly you receive an email from the Knights, from Aid to the Church in Need, offering help and asking us to come up with proposals,” said Bishop Warda, adding, “This is the sign of God’s providence — you go to sleep with problems and you wake up with solutions that are not yours. Someone is just working behind the scenes and trying to organize– all you have to do is just surrender. “
Without that continued help, the extinction of Christianity in Iraq looms as a very real threat. In 2003, there were an estimated 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq. Today that number is somewhere between 175,000 and 300,000, according to Stephen Rasche with the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil.
In the last three and a half years, Warda told the seminarians, well-meaning Christians have often asked him to leave Iraq, and bring his community to the West — to America, Australia and Europe.
“[They would say] ‘everyone is really helped by the presence of the Christians from Iraq because of their dedication and their commitment to the Christian faith.’ And we always said ‘No, this is our historical land,’” he said.
The effort to helping Christian families return to their homes is well underway. Thanks to a $2 million reconstruction grant from the government of Hungary, 900 Christian Chaldean families have moved back into Teleskof. Another $2 million from the Knights of Columbus, who have committed $17 million to aid Christians in the Middle East, has helped over 200 families return to the town of Karamles, with another 500 families expected to return there in the near future.
Because persecuted Christians and Iraq have had to do without help from the United Nations, Archbishop Warda applauded Vice President Pence’s recent announcement that the Trump Administration will begin providing aid directly to persecuted Christians.
In remarks at the National Press Club on Tuesday, he formally thanked President Trump and Vice President Pence.
“It makes an important shift because it shows that the American government considers the situation of those who suffer this persecution at the hands of ISIS to be a priority,” he said.
When asked what Americans can do to show solidarity with the persecuted Christians, Warda told the seminarians to continue praying and to help materially by contributing to the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need, and Catholic Relief Services. And thirdly, he said, to continue to raise awareness about the plight of Christians in Iraq.
“Try to use all the channels to make this issue well known and not forgotten. After three and a half years so many people tend to forget or are sometimes tired of always hearing about the persecution of the Christians so we need the voice of our brothers and sisters to remind everyone that the persecution and difficulties and challenges are still there,” he said.
On Thursday, before the archbishop returns to Iraq, he will visit the United Nations to participate in a conference on “Preserving Pluralism and Diversity in the Nineveh Region.”