A few nights from now the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil,
Bashar Matti Warda,
will celebrate Midnight Mass with his Iraqi flock. The faithful
will walk into their cathedral through a passageway modeled on the
Ishtar Gate that was the main entryway into ancient Babylon under
2,600 years ago. Once inside they will celebrate their Christmas
liturgy in a dialect of Aramaic, the language
This year, Erbil is a microcosm of the hopes and anxieties of
Iraq’s dwindling Christian population. Once a small outpost about 50
miles east of Mosul, the city in recent years has become a sanctuary for
Christians fleeing Islamic State. Archbishop
says the fears
and Joseph expressed for the safety of Jesus resonate with the
fragile Iraqi Christian community, whose number has fallen from 1.4
million before the 2003 U.S. invasion to roughly 200,000 today.
our own land we Christians are exiles,” he says at a meeting with
Journal editors. “We relate to the flight of the Holy Family into
The archbishop spoke these words during a recent visit
to the United States to plead for assistance. Though he won’t say it,
Christians and other Iraqi minorities were abandoned under
On the way out, it’s true, Secretary of State
did call what was happening to them “genocide,” but insiders say
it was very reluctantly and only after a long campaign of pressure.
Christians pride themselves on being among the world’s oldest Christian
communities. The three largest denominations are Chaldean Catholic,
Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox. Their unease points to the
fundamental challenge for Muslim-majority Middle Eastern nations in the
21st century: Can they make room for their minority populations,
allowing them to live in peace and dignity?
The past few years
have been brutal. When Islamic State went on a rampage aimed at erasing
Christianity from Iraq, Christian homes were marked with the Arabic
letter “N,” a derogatory shorthand for Nazarene, meaning a follower of Jesus. The practical choices before these Iraqi Christians were stark: flee, convert to Islam, or die.
women, like Yazidi women, were sold into sexual slavery.
great difference this year is the defeat of
announced by the Iraqi government earlier this month. The news is
an understandable source of joy for Christians. But though the
beheadings, immolations and even crucifixions favored by the Sunni
Islamic State may be more sensational, the colonialism of Shia Iran is
also squeezing Iraq’s Christian communities today. Many Iraqis now see
their country as essentially an Iranian province.
situation even more precarious for Christians is Baghdad’s continuing
dispute with the Kurds, who want traditionally Christian areas such as
Erbil to be incorporated into an independent Kurdistan. So even where
Christians aren’t the target, they are often caught in the crossfire.
Warda is looking for the help his nation’s desperate Christian minority
needs to rebuild its homes, churches, businesses and communities.
That’s why he and other Iraqi Christians were cheered by
October announcement that Uncle Sam would deliver more U.S. aid
through religious associations on the ground rather than relying simply
on unaccountable international organizations such as the U.N.
The archbishop highlights two groups he says have shown themselves adept at getting aid into the hands of those who need it—the Knights of Columbus (which takes no government money) and Aid to the Church in Need.
At a Dec. 4 White House meeting, Archbishop Warda gave Mr. Pence a
crucifix that had been broken by Islamic State during its occupation of
Karamles, a Christian village outside Mosul.
The long-term future of Iraqi Christians remains uncertain. After
George W. Bush
upended Iraq by deposing
and Barack Obama left prematurely, Iraqis today want to know: Is the U.S. in or out?
Iraq’s minorities, recent history does not incline to optimism. The
Jews were pushed out in the 1940s, and the Mandeans largely fled to
Jordan and Syria after the U.S. invasion. The question is whether the
same dark fate awaits the remaining Yazidis and Christians.
Christmas is the season of hope, and the archbishop says he detects an
encouraging change in his Muslim friends and neighbors: They know there
is a problem within Islam and are willing to discuss it. More
encouraging still, he says, has been the steadfastness of his fellow
Iraqi Christians, who in the face of unspeakable threats proved willing
to risk all they had, including their lives, rather than renounce their
“There will always be Christians in Iraq,” he smiles. “All we wish is to be welcome in our own home.”