Fighting ISIS With a School — Iraqi Bishop Says Education Is Needed for Change

'The fanatical mentality of ISIS is not a new phenomenon,' the bishop of Erbil said. 'It has always existed, except that now it has increased, because of the chaos the country is going through.'

Refugee children at a refugee camp in Duhok, Iraq, on March 28
Refugee children at a refugee camp in Duhok, Iraq, on March 28 (photo: CNA/Daniel Ibanez)

MADRID, Spain — Iraqi Bishop Bashar Warda said that education will be key in helping to fight the mentality behind ISIS.

The bishop of Erbil, one of the dioceses most attacked by the Islamic State group (ISIS), and where the most Christian refugees have been taken after fleeing the paramilitary organization, was in Madrid for the April 17-19 “We Are All Nazarenes” conference.

He told CNA, “The fanatical mentality of ISIS is not a new phenomenon; it has always existed, except that now it has increased, because of the chaos the country is going through.”

He also emphasized that the Islamic State is not a phenomenon that is only affecting the Middle East, but “a global phenomenon, because there are European and American citizens in its ranks.”

Bishop Warda pointed to the role that education must play in bringing about change.

“In 2004, my parish was the first one where they placed a car bomb. The people asked, ‘What can we do?’ Some proposed building a concrete wall. But I told them, No, that what we needed to do was to build a school, and that’s what we did. The neighborhood children come to this school now, which is located on the church grounds, and 90% of the students are Muslims,” he said.

The prelate stated that at the school “we educate them in the values of accepting others, of respect and love and having an open mind. That is what they are missing and what Christians, and especially Catholics, can contribute.”

He described seeing Christians offering help to Muslims in need: “These communities carry out the duty of love and solidarity. Christians have the mission of bringing the message of giving freely what they have received from God as a gift or a grace, even in this convulsed area of the world.”

The Islamic State group has taken over parts of Iraq and Syria in recent months. The Islamic militant organization has carried out mass persecutions of minority populations, primarily Christians and Yazidis.

The continual attacks in Iraq have forced many Christians to flee from their homes. Since August 2014, Erbil has taken in more than 15,000 families.

“Some came on foot, walking for more than eight hours, having left everything behind. We have had to do a lot of work to help them, and we had to start from zero. We want our people to stay in Kurdistan and Iraq, but only so long as they have a decent life. Housing, education and health are the main issues to resolve,” Bishop Warda said.

The persecution of Christians in the Middle East is not new, he reiterated, but, now, there is the possibility of immigrating to other countries where there is freedom of religion.  

In fact, Bishop Warda said that the Iraqi-Christian community in the United States has 22 priests and seminarians who were born in Iraq. “They emigrate, but they do not leave their faith or their Church, just the country,” he explained.

The bishop of Erbil is aware that life for Christians in Iraq is not easy, and this region runs the risk of remaining without its historic Christian presence.

“We want to offer a possibility, so that families will think twice before they leave. We know life in Iraq is not easy, especially when they live crowded together in one room of a house or in a trailer, and they (ISIS) have left us with nothing.”

“We can’t tell them to stay, but we want emigration to not be the only option,” he emphasized. He also pointed out they feel “the power of prayer. That all your brothers and sisters in the faith are praying for you is something very powerful.”