When Iraq's new ambassador to the Holy See presented his credentials, Pope Benedict XVI stated unequivocally that this was a Church in a struggle for her very survival.
Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need interviews the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil in northern Iraq, Bashar Matti Warda, about the story of Catholics in Iraq.
Q) You entered the seminary at the tender age of 12. Did you always have a sense of your vocation?
A) At the age of 10 we moved to Al Dora (South of Baghdad, Iraq), which was closer to the seminary. At that time I used to go there for catechism. I saw the 3rd and 4th year students who were very kind, also in their way of looking after the spiritual aspect of our lives. They put so much effort into teaching us the principles of Christianity in a very difficult situation. That was my first sense of my vocation: I wanted to be like them.
Q) What was the greatest preparation for your priesthood?
A) It was during the Gulf War. There was damage everywhere. I and 40 other young people from the southern part of Baghdad gathered during the long nights of bombing. I was in my first year of Theology and during these gatherings I got to know these young people deeper. They had so many questions about Christianity and about their faith. These moments required me to deepen my vocation and prepared me to be ready for the mission, which is beyond just the celebration of the Sacraments but required me to accompany my people especially during these moments of "poorness" that we all experienced at that time.
Q) They needed a priest to walk with them?
A) They needed more than just a priest but a brother, a friend or what you call in Arabic "Abbeena" - essentially an "Our father". They had so many questions and this helped me in a way to rediscover on a daily basis what it means to be a priest in these moments of transition and difficulties especially when the sanctions were imposed upon Iraq. They were there to help me and I them. I learned be more attentive, listening more to the suffering of these people - not just the physical but also the spiritual sufferings.
Q) At age 41 you were ordained the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil in Northern Iraq, I think at the time one of the youngest bishops. What was your reaction when you heard of your appointment?
A) It was a shock. The diocese was without a bishop for five years and those five years were very demanding because of the influx of over 5000 Christian families who fled the violence in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk and came to Erbil. The Church in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, is everything to a Christian. Whatever they need they go to the Church. When they need a job, even a government job, they approach the church for assistance. This is how it goes. The diocese was not ready to welcome these huge influxes and it split the diocese between the original families and the newcomers. There is a gap between the two and we are now just in the process of reconciliation.
Q) A year before your ordination the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul was killed. There were death threats to the church hierarchy. With all these challenges, of which you were well aware, did you not want to say: "I do not want this responsibility; it is too much"?
A) It is not natural but I said I am ready whatever it takes. It is obedience. I knew that it was demanding and challenging. I have since undergone several experiences in Baghdad during and after the war. Thankfully Erbil is safe but there is a natural sense of fear which is also there but once you are committed you just go; that's it.
Q) You completed your studies in Louvain, Belgium, and your thesis was on violence in Islam. Why did you choose this particular topic?
A) In 1993 and 1994, the former regime in Iraq turned to Islam and the Islamic movement, not because they believed in it, but to establish greater control especially during the time of the sanctions. We then experienced a rise of violence inside Islam and among the Muslims especially in the Middle East. I studied the roots of these movements and I expected that there was going to be an increase in the politicization and radicalization of Islam. From 2001 to 2003 it was obvious to see an emergence of radicalized Islamic movements on the street, which is not normal. I realized that the whole of the Middle East is undergoing a very delicate and challenging time especially with Islamic radicalism.
Q) Is violence inherent in Islam or is Islam being manipulated by the fundamentalist?
A) I would go for the second, manipulation, because we have lived together for so many years in a peaceful co-existence with the Shia or Sunni Muslims. It is certainly a manipulation as opposed to violence being inherent. There is of course violence in the history of Islam and still is; not so long ago a bishop was killed and so many families have been forced to leave Mosul and Baghdad. Many groups within Iraq believe that Islam is the only religion and using violence to achieve it is justifiable.
Q) For what purpose?
A) Conquest. Their explanation is that it is part of their belief. It is part of Jihad. It is demanded of them. It is not a choice but a way of life. Some politicians use these movements - not believing in the idea - but only as a means for political end.
Q) Is there a dedicated campaign to force the Christians to leave?
A) Violence is all over the country. The situation with the Christians is a special phenomenon. The Shia respond with violence towards the Sunni when they are attacked and vice versa while Christians are the only community that do not respond with violence. So it makes them special….
Q) …a soft target if you will…
A) Exactly. And there are so many reasons to attack the Christians; the Christians are victims of a social, economic and political process and interest. There are people who discriminate and attack Christians because they are Christians; there are other groups that attack the Christians because it makes international news - to show the whole world that the political process in Iraq is a failure; there are people who attack Christians out of social interest and finally others for economic reasons. This last group threatens Christian families forcing them out of their homes simply in order occupy the abandoned houses.
Q) The American soldiers have left. What is your feeling for the future of the country? Will violence increase?
A) I hoped that we've learned that war is damaging, brutal and has cost us the lives of our loved ones. I also hope that we have learned that only dialogue between all Iraqi parties is beneficial to the country. But if it goes the other way and communication among the political parties is curtailed then we might experience more violence, even a civil war. And as you know, the minorities are the ones who will suffer from such situation and of course the Christians will be the target.
Q) Do you think a civil war is on the horizon?
A) I hope and pray that it will not because we have seen the awfulness of this in Baghdad and Mosul.
Q) I want to ask you about the Internally Displaced Persons coming from the south and flooding into the north. What is the impact on your diocese?A) The experience of these poor people has prompted us to care for them pastorally. So it is a grace from God and a sign of hope for us. In the dioceses of Baghdad and Mosul, they are forced to close churches while for us we are thinking of building new churches for these families. We have over 5000 new Christian families and they need a place. It is not, however temporary, because many people, thanks be to God are purchasing property in Erbil and Ankawa. Purchasing a property is a sign that they think of permanent settlement.
Q) …which is a good sign for the country…
A) Yes, it is a good sign for the country and for Christianity also because we can find a balance between a suffering area and a peaceful area. This will also give hope to the other bishops and priests in Baghdad and Mosul who will, at least, see a sign of hope because what saddens us are those families that leave the country. This is really a sad story because we know that they will never come back.
Q) Is there one particular story that struck you personally when you think of refugees?
A) A family was asked to prepare their daughter to be married to an emir, a head of a small radical group, within 24 hours. The ultimatum was marriage; convert to Islam and to leave the house.
Q) This was in Baghdad?
A) This was in Baghdad and they left immediately and went north.
Q) There has been a proposal to develop a Christian enclave on the Nineveh plains. Is this a good idea?
A) In discussions with the Christian politicians, none of them have ever thought of this idea at all. There is no one who believes it a good idea to gather Christians in one spot. This has been misunderstood from the beginning. There are some historical villages and cities, which have been known as Christian. A certain Islamic group started buying the Christians properties at double the price just to own the property and to change the demographical status of the village until the people realized the deeper motivation behind this and they stopped selling. The demand is, instead of changing the demographics of these cities, to have constitutional rights to those historical cities and villages. No-one, however, has asked for a gathering of Christians in one place.
Q) As there is difficulty, so too you are experiencing an extraordinary number of faithful attending Mass as well as a growth in vocations?
A) Our land is the land of Abraham. He was called at a time of barrenness. It was also a time of difficulty and God told him, see the sky and the multitude of stars. Your descendants will be like this. So it has always been. God gives us the sign of hope amidst the suffering so we can rely on Him and keep going. This is the joyfulness that we always experience and praise God for in the middle of suffering. In the middle of a crisis, God will always give us the sign of hope and joy that He is with us, Emmanuel.
Q) What can we do to help the Christians in Iraq?
A) First of all, pray for this Church because the root of Christianity is in the Middle East. Especially in Iraq, you have so many important spiritual traditions. Secondly raise awareness. Every Christian should be made aware of the sufferings of the Christians in Iraq, to help people become aware of the sufferings of the minorities. We are afraid that in the bigger political picture, the minorities become lost and nobody will hear our stories. The Church in Iraq is a suffering Church, but give us the hope and the encouragement to continue our mission because we see that Christianity is valuable for the country. We cannot say, 'well they rejected us and we should leave'; no. We still have so many people who believe with us that we have a mission towards this community especially during the times of violence. We have a mission there, a mission to hopefully play a very important part in bringing reconciliation to all the political parties. For that, we need a lot of prayers on your part and also the awareness that the Church is still very much alive there.