ERBIL, Iraq — Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq, has been the locus for assisting tens of thousands of refugees who fled the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS or Daesh) when it occupied Mosul and the surrounding towns and villages in northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.
At that time, the Chaldean Catholic prelate issued a rallying call for international aid to help the approximately 75,000 refugees who descended on Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, seeking food and shelter. The funds swiftly arrived, and the diocese set about providing a wide range of services from housing and clinics, to schools and food distribution.
Two and a half years later, many of the refugees, termed IDPs (internally displaced persons), have fled Iraq, but thousands more remain in Erbil and hope to return to their homes now that many of their towns have been liberated.
In this interview with the Register, Archbishop Warda explains why the Iraqi government needs to urgently turn its attention to reconstruction of the once-occupied towns, how the international community is crucial to the reintroduction of a rule of law, and why he is encouraged by initial statements coming from President Donald Trump.
Archbishop Warda also says he is grateful for the attention Pope Francis and U.S. bishops have given to Iraqi Christians, why there continues to be an urgent need of funds, despite the liberation, and proposes that the U.S. Church and others hold a week of prayer and solidarity for the country’s Christians.
Your Excellency, what are your current priorities and concerns?
I would say, first of all, to finish the operation of liberating Mosul, to secure it, and then start on the work of basic reconstruction, of infrastructure. [This would] show that the government is really willing and cares about the well-being of all of these lands, villages and cities that have been liberated.
This would definitely encourage the people to go back again and contribute to the process. So I would say security is the priority now.
Some are concerned that the liberation of the villages has made things worse; in terms of morale, the refugees see their houses have been damaged and destroyed and so don’t want to go back. What can be done?
Yes, they see that the government hasn’t really stepped in and done something concerning that, because the government and everyone is focused on fighting Daesh in Mosul. So they delayed all these reconstruction programs and showed the lack of funds in this regard. These kinds of statements will have discouraged our people from thinking seriously of going back. We understand why the government is saying that, but I would say we need some time, although time is very critical.
We need time before we step into these areas and start doing this work. The sooner the better, of course, but this depends so much on facts, not just lack of funds. We are aware of political disputes around these villages, and cities that have a long way to be settled, and have also contributed to worsening the situation. So I would say the government, when they make these kinds of statements, harms the enthusiasm of the people to go back.
What proportion of your flock wants to go back?
It depends. Each village has its own story. So now, for example, in Tel Isqof, we have 255 families. This is less than a third of the community that was settled there in 2014. Some people still are worried about the well-being of the village. Others have already settled in Duhok and Erbil and will wait until the end of the school year to make up their minds, but still, a good number have decided to go back again. Baqofah would be willing to go back, but because of the damage and destruction, I would doubt it, although they’d like to go. The damage is almost 80% there. So it depends on how serious we are on this issue.
As you know, the Chaldean Church has done some work in Tel Isqof, which has helped the community on that matter, to think seriously of coming back. So a quarter of the community is in the area, and we have others waiting till the end of the academic year.
Security is the primary concern. How can that be achieved? How can the rule of law be brought back to these countries so you can start to rebuild?
It’s a hope and a wish that the law would govern all this, but the reality, as I see it, is really difficult. We need time to really realize that there’s a need for law to be respected by all. The sectarian violence which occurred in Mosul and so many parts of the country has weakened that sense of the importance of law. Militias — all of this — are obstacles.
We would like to see the law governing the lives of the people, but we’re concerned about the reality that shows things are different. Here, we need support of the international community, to remind Iraqi politicians of the importance of really building a state based on law that respects everyone and protects the lives of every citizen because, as it stands, I would doubt we would be seeing some kind of improvement along those lines.
It’s often said that you need security, but also jobs and services. All of them are interlinked, aren’t they?
It’s all one package. When you have security, jobs become available; you have people willing to invest and create more jobs. It’s a package that you have to take altogether.
What can the international community do to help?
Fighting Daesh is one, and then putting pressure on Iraqi politicians to readjust all these policies that have provided circumstances for Daesh and all of these sectarian groups to be active in areas like Mosul. Also, it’s important to put some pressure on the Iraqi government to place importance on really protecting the well-being and prosperity of the minorities — the Christians, Yazidis — and helping these communities to sustain themselves.
Probably at this stage it’s strange to ask, but all of these minorities would need some kind of political, economical and social privileges to encourage them to stay. It’s a strange request, if we would like to build a country for all, but the number of communities are shrinking, and we cannot compete and sustain ourselves in such a way when we’re surrounded by so much violence. So you need a push from government to really strengthen the presence of these minorities.
What would you like to see the United States do, and what’s your view of President Trump and him giving priority to Christians who are seeking to emigrate? Could that help your situation?
Personally speaking, I’m really encouraged to see someone is at least thinking about the Christians and giving, not a priority, but at least attracting attention: There, people are suffering, and, yes, everyone has suffered from the sectarian violence of 2004 — and yet we cannot deny that so many Muslims, Shia and Sunni, have been victims of this. But what’s unique about Christians and Yazidis is that we never participated; we were not part of this sectarian violence between Shia and Sunna. We try to be a bridge, and the Church herself has tried to work in so many areas and initiate dialogue between the two and get them closer, but we were victims of all of this violence.
When someone says there are people suffering because of their religion, of their faith, this would give you hope that finally someone is thinking of doing something.
I don’t know how much [Trump] is going to do. Probably some people would say such statements would probably bring negative tension and would turn them against you. They’re probably right. Some people would hear these Trump statements and would say a new crusade was probably going to emerge. All of these scenarios are possible, but, for me, I would say this is probably the first time an American politician, a president, who says, “No, there are people who are suffering, dying, because of their faith — and we have to think seriously about them.”
How would you prefer that he, or the West, the international community, take the lead in bringing about some kind of security?
By working with all of these regions, not without them. That’s important, because we cannot, for example, defeat Daesh and [in the process] destroy the dynamic of life between all these groups.
As you know, the Middle East is a majority of minorities, so when you adjust the situation, you have to try to take that into consideration and not damage this important social fact that we have. So we have to work with all of these groups, with people of goodwill, to establish a final peace, because doing the whole job alone and in an American or European way would sometimes not help.
Is it a priority for many Iraqi Christians to emigrate, and what is your view on that as a bishop?
Emigration is a personal choice; we cannot interfere in that.
As a bishop, I would like to see our community staying here, contributing to the well-being of the country, making the best contribution of so many Christian professionals in so many areas. But for those trapped in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, they’re not willing to come back, and they see this is the end. Definitely, we appreciate any kind of help that could be given to them.
On the militias, are you concerned about them, the way they’re organized?
I was and am against the militias. The militias could perhaps solve a problem in the short term, but would complicate the whole political process in the long term. This will not help really in building a country that respects a law for all. They’re used to carrying guns, and solving their problems with guns, and definitely they bring these measures and ways with them.
What we need is a unified army and Iraqi army or Peshmerga (Kurdish military) — one of the recognized and authorized defense systems within Iraqi’s defense forces.
I’ve always been encouraging my people to join either the Iraqi army or the Peshmerga, not to create a new militia that would complicate the political process. What we were really afraid of happened, because when you go to Nineveh Plain, for example, you’ll see six or seven flags [representing disparate tribal militia]. This would also be another fact for discouraging people to go back, because they’d say we have tribes who control day-to-day life, so this would not help.
The idea of a protective enclave has also long been suggested. What are you current views on that?
We need political, economic and social privileges. The people of Nineveh Plain have the right to decide really the best way to govern their lives. I’m not a politician [and it is not my place] to say this is the best way. The people have to evaluate their whole situation after going back, because it’s too early to speak about all of these projects when you don’t know really what, or who, would be there, which kind of community, how many people, the way of life there — liberating, securing and allowing people to go back and then helping them to consider [the way forward is key]. But you need support, privileges and protection to remind everyone that they all have a responsibility for maintaining the Christian and Yazidi presence in the Nineveh Plain.
What about the danger of creating a ghetto?
No, that would not help; to isolate ourselves, this would not help. It’s good to strengthen this group so it could be a good contributor [to society], not to isolate them — to strengthen them so they can really give, not just get.
Going back to how things were pre-2003, how did things work in those days? Why were Christian-Muslim relations better then?
Because you had a state with law. You had a dictatorship, yes, but there was a law, so that at least whenever there was a problem and dispute, you knew where to go.
After 1991, 1992, some of the tribal measures were introduced that damaged this state of law, but still there was a law, a dialogue of life between the Christians and Muslims that helped both communities to work together.
In Mosul, for example, the contribution of the Christians to the educational system was well known, also in health care and so many professionals, especially in the private sector. The Christians were well known for their business. They were working together until this sectarian violence started in Baghdad and affected the life of the people in Mosul. That provided a suitable climate for sectarian and extremist groups to emerge, and this has affected this dialogue of life.
To start this dialogue of life again, it needs some serious effort and really courageous people to take initiatives, to say: What has happened is exceptional; it’s not the way we’ve lived together. I think this would be one of the challenges after Daesh.
Should there be a focus on Islam? We’ve heard it often said that ISIS is the real Islam.
This is the homework of the Muslims, with the help of Christians. We don’t have to say: “No, we were victims, and we have had enough.” No, we have to say: “We were victims, but we have to continue dialogue with them,” that it would “affect negatively if you continue the same way, and that’s why we need to change the curriculum, the speeches on Fridays.”
Yes, it’s the homework of the Muslims to do, but not without Christians.
What would like to see the U.S. bishops do? Some say they haven’t been engaged enough.
I would disagree with that. I’ve been encouraged by so many statements made by the bishops’ conference and by bishops and cardinals on this matter, but probably we need more, perhaps have a week of solidarity with the Christians persecuted in the Middle East, so all of the churches around America would be aware of the situation, speaking in their parishes more about this, and in the media. This week of solidarity would be important, as it would add to their efforts. The bishops’ conference was not really neglecting what’s happening. We’ve received so many bishops and have watched closely. Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan was here, and other bishops were here, and we’ve been in communication with other bishops who’ve shown an interest, not just an interest, but [who] really do care about situation. But a week of solidarity would help to boost the efforts of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
There’s concern that it’s unsustainable to continue providing what you’re providing for the long term because it’s very expensive — you need a lot of funds to keep the IDPs in houses and accommodation. How much time is left? Is there an urgency?
Yes, there is an urgency, to be honest with you. I’ve secured rent until the end of June 2017 by the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need, and I do think we need more, for the next three months.
So, for example, until September ,where there is a possibility, if things continue as they are now, for people to return, and then, even when they return, they need help in their villages. So I would say we should prepare for a commitment for another year of funds and help if we’d like to really see Christians staying in Erbil, Duhok, or going back to their villages. So yes, financial aid is urgent.
The United Nations hasn’t been providing help, so aid has really been left to the Churches?
Yes, we’ve always heard from the U.N. saying: “There’s a shortage of funds, but the Church is doing its work in a professional way; we cannot compete with the Church. The health care has been given by the Church to the IDPs; it’s very professional — we cannot do better than this.” And so, then we were left alone.
The work of the Chaldean Diocese of Erbil was always to help the IDPs to live with dignity and to keep the Christians presence in Iraq in the way that it helps the IDPs in their immediate needs, accompanys them in their spiritual journey and pastoral activities — so to encourage them to stay and contribute to the well-being of the whole county.
What can Americans do to help?
Prayer is the first, raising awareness is second, informing the politicians of the need to support all the persecuted Christians around the world at this critical time, and to continue the financial help to really maintain the projects that would help the IDPs to live with dignity.
What’s your view of Pope Francis’ approach to this issue?
I would say whenever there was a possibility to do something, he did it. Almost every month he has mentioning persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria.
Anytime there’s an urgent call, he’s urging people to pray and not to forget the Christians. He encouraged so many of the Catholic aid agencies to step in and work. He himself made a contribution of 100,000 euro to provide medical assistance for the IDPs.
He has been sending cardinals as his representative here and also continuing communication with the cardinals who visited. I would say whenever there was a possibility to do something, he did it.
Some are concerned about his comments about Islam and feel they’re unrealistic. What do you say about this?
At the end of the day, he speaks about what he would like to see, not just about the present situation of Islam — but what we would like to see from Islam. So he’s holding the past, present and future at once, in that sense.
You cannot speak of Christianity, Islam or Judaism only from just the past, but also [about the possibility] to get them all together. Probably [regarding] some of the statements people disliked, they say it’s not realistic, but, still, he is seeing the whole picture together.
Do you think there’s a need to call for reciprocity, for Muslim countries to offer more religious freedom?
I’m sure when he has met politicians from Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E and Arab diplomats that he has presented all of these serious issues and spoken about them, without really pushing all of these sides.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.