Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda serves the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil in northern Iraq. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1993 and joined the Redemptorist order. He became archbishop in 2010. He recently spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake about the violence facing Christians in the Middle East and the primary concerns of Catholics in Iraq.
Where are you from originally? Has your family always been Catholic?
I grew up as a Chaldean Catholic in Baghdad. The Christian roots of my family go very deep.
When were you ordained?
I entered seminary in 1981 at the age of 12. After finishing high school, I was ordained in 1993. I joined the Redemptorists in 1995 and did my licentiate in moral theology at the Catholic University in Louvain. In 1999, I went back to the Redemptorist mission in Baghdad. In 2001, I was asked to be the pastor at Baghdad’s largest parish in southern Baghdad. We had 3,000 families.
By the end of 2004, the violence, bombing and the killing of Catholic priests had started in Baghdad. That made it difficult for the seminary to remain in Baghdad. During that time, three of the seminary staff were kidnapped. I was asked to be director of the seminary. We ended up moving the seminary north. In 2010, I was enacted as archbishop of Erbil. We have 28,000 Chaldean Catholics. There are another 2,000 Christians from other churches.
Can you provide a brief overview of the religious affiliations found in northern Iraq?
The three northern provinces are largely inhabited by the Kurdish people. They are neither Christian nor Arab, but Sunni. They speak the Kurdish language in two different dialects. They have their own culture, but since the 1940s or ’50s, they have maintained that they are Iraqis. My parents, who were born in northern Iraq, speak Kurdish fluently. They were forced to leave northern Iraq in the 1970s.
In addition, there are some Arab families who are there for business, who left the violence. Christians have been there for centuries. Yazidi is another ethno-religious group there. They have been a very closed group, but we’re getting to know them more and more.
What is the relationship between Christians and the Kurds?
Recently, they’ve been very welcoming and have responded positively.
In America, there’s the general belief that when we increase popular rule, we will increase freedom of religion. This isn’t necessarily true in places such as Egypt, Iraq or Syria. How do you see the so-called “Arab Spring,” in terms of the ability of Christians to freely worship and live safely? Has it made Christians more or less safe?
When you take it in a general theoretical manner, Christians flourish when there is freedom. With freedom, we would have our own schools, colleges and civil services. But the problem in the Middle East is that things are not politically mature yet. There is too much extremism. So many people say that Islam should be the solution to so many political issues. We don’t know how that will end. Iraq is very immature politically. Dialogue is too often violent. It isn’t easy. Can democracy be mature enough to hold all people together? I doubt it. Theoretically, yes, but you have to first prepare the conditions for that.
Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, there has been a significant reduction in the number of Christians in Iraq. Why is that?
Yes, there’s been a reduction. Christian churches were targeted, Christians were threatened and killed, and many were forced to move elsewhere. There are so many reasons that many felt there was no future for them amidst an immature political process. The political process is based on family and tribal connections. Those in the U.S. look at the situation and wonder what’s going wrong. They say, “They have a constitution; there was an election. Things should be going okay.” What those on the outside don’t realize is that tribal connections are working on the inside. The tribes and parties look out for their own interests. Iraq is a very wealthy country, with a $100-billion budget, and many resources, such as oil. There’s much greed. So, for Christians, there are many reasons for them to leave — and maybe one or two reasons for them to stay.
Where are Christians going? Are there any safe enclaves for Christians in the Mideast?
They have gone to Syria, to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, but all of these are “waiting countries.” People tend not to stay there. Forty-four percent of Iraqi asylum seekers are Christian. They are going to any place that will speed the process of immigration. Other families seek final settlement in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Those who are not able, who are too poor or do not have the means to travel, often move inside the country to places such as Erbil and northern Iraq.
How might the instability in Syria affect Christians there?
It’s precarious. Syria is sensitive because Lebanon would be affected by Syria. It would cause chaos there as well as to the Christian presence in Iraq. When there’s chaos, it is not a good time for minorities.
Do you see post-communist Russia as a possible defender of Christians in the Mideast?
No, primarily because of communism. The Orthodox are very strong in Russia, but, politically speaking, we cannot view them as our defenders.
What are three things you would like American Catholics to know about Catholics in Iraq?
First, that Christianity has had a presence in Iraq for 2,000 years. It’s a very old community. It has not been converted from Islam. We were there before Islam. Our schools were always the best, even from the sixth and seventh centuries. Second, we’ve been through a very difficult time. We are grateful to the many people who have held out a hand of charity and solidarity with us, the various Catholic charities. However, we would like to leave this path of charity for the path of opportunity. Yes, we are a minority, but we have the capability to stay and build a good future for Iraq. Third, I would like to see more of a commitment by the media to raise the awareness of the issues in Iraq to build schools and hospitals. We are not benefitting from the wealth that Iraq has. We need to find ways to stay and build the community. When we leave Iraq, it’s a big loss. When I visited our communities in Detroit, the second and third generations are no longer speaking the language. Our whole culture is gone.
Do you see a peaceful generation coming?
Yes, that’s what we have to work for. The next generation is not following in the footsteps of their parents because they are tired of the mess. So many voices are asking when, for what and why? These courageous questions are helpful.
What do we miss when we lump the Middle East together as a region?
There are areas of the Middle East that people can safely visit and benefit from. The roots of Christianity are there. We managed to open an international school in Erbil. We had five Americans from Washington and Dallas who are committed to helping us. I depend on them to come back to tell their story, not from a political point of view, but what it’s like to live among the community and in the heart of the community. The more you visit, the more you realize the richness and diversity of what’s there. You also learn about the dialogue between the communities and the lines that you have to respect. More positive articles and reports could help Americans and Europeans know more about the Middle East. We do not want to be on the news only because of violence and killings.
We use the term New Evangelization frequently in America. What does the term New Evangelization mean in Iraq?
For me and my community and the coming Year of Faith, we have prayed for that a lot and have had retreats and workshops to prepare and celebrate with the young people in our parishes. We see it as strengthening our relationship with Jesus who suffered and was crucified. This means reflecting on our wounds and not just bearing them, but taking these wounds with joy that we have participated in the suffering of Our Lord. We believe that true Christianity is a persecuted Christianity. That’s true all over the world. We can reflect on the past 10 years and say that the Lord is telling us something here. We have to deepen our relationship with him and announce the Catholic faith in a new vision which would welcome all those who are at the margins.
One of the bad effects of 2003 is that it’s opened the country for new evangelical groups who have come to steal from our community and churches. They come in ignorance telling us, “We are going to tell you about Jesus Christ.” I respond by saying, “Yes, I know him.” These groups succeed because they have financial ability. I told a group from Dallas, “You are weakening Christianity here. We are weak enough here in number, and you are dividing us. If you want to help Christians, first come to my place, not to places outside my diocese to try to attract others.”
What would you like to see in terms of support from the Church? What are the primary intra-Church issues facing your diocese and community?
I would like to see if there is a possibility for American churches to start adopting a parish that cannot pay for their activities or the priest’s salary. I would like to see if there is a possibility from Catholic universities to provide one or two scholarships for the best Christian students. I would like to see some of the wealthy families participate in supporting students to go to good private schools in Iraq.
This year we have started the project of building a new hospital, which would create 300 jobs and enhance the economy of the area. We are also thinking of building a university where we could attract as many as 5,000 Muslim students. Universities could start a program there in the English language that could attract Muslim students and help the area economically.
The Vatican’s Congregation of the Eastern Churches is meeting next week. They have been helpful. I am grateful for medical relief, but we need more.
We would like to see long-term projects that would help the whole country. If there are any Catholic hospitals that would have an interest in adopting a hospital or developing an affiliation, I am appealing for any Catholic hospitals or universities willing to work with us to support us and give us the needed push. We need American Catholic universities and hospitals to be with us at this historical moment.
When you live in a society where there are a great many people who would be pleased if you didn’t exist, how do you build trust?
God wants me here. For the past 2,000 years, he has wanted us here, and he has taken care of his Church.
Some might ask, “Why build a $4-million school or a $30-million hospital if it could be taken from you?” It’s God’s Church. He will provide. From the outside, you see all of the political sides and say, “I cannot do this,” but when you live here, you realize that there is a Spirit. The Spirit of God takes you in all these directions. This Catholic pilgrimage gives strength to us all. As Mother Teresa said, “If what you build, they tear down tomorrow, build it anyway.”
Tim Drake is the Register's senior writer.