Just a few months ago Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda, C.S.S.R., of the Archdiocese of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan had expressed exasperation with the halting flow of U.S. aid to Iraqi Christians and other minority communities attempting to recover from the devastation of the ISIS occupation. It was a frustration shared by other Christian leaders of Iraq’s Nineveh province.
Now he sees signs of revived, perhaps sustained support, beginning with the opening of a U.S. Agency for International Development office in Erbil that has provided much-needed aid to nearby Chaldean Christian communities. In Karamles, a village that had been badly damaged by ISIS militants, that has meant five new water wells, a new tractor to help get the agricultural economy back on its feet and a renovated medical clinic.
“Aid is starting to come in,” he said via email from Erbil, “but it needs to come with an urgency that has been missing for years.” Of particular importance, according to Archbishop Warda, is aid meant to develop livelihood programs to help provide work and jumpstart the region’s damaged economy.
“We see a direct correlation with Christians continuing to leave and not having jobs,” he said. “We Christians have always been noted to be entrepreneurial, but how can we do that if there is no seed money?”
“Aid is starting to come in,” Archbishop Warda said, “but it needs to come with an urgency that has been missing for years.”
The Christian community in Iraq has been decimated by decades of conflict, persecution and disorder, culminating in the unbelievable savagery of ISIS. After two millennia in Iraq, the Christian population has reduced to a vanishing point, raising concerns around the world about the viability of this ancient community.
But Archbishop Warda is weary of more expressions of concern. “If Christianity is to survive here,” he said, “there needs to be a more dynamic and creative approach to helping our communities quickly and effectively.”
Waiting for the reconstruction has been deeply discouraging to Nineveh’s Christians, he said, “nearly four and a half years since ISIS destroyed our communities, homes, churches and jobs.”
“I understand that the humanitarian aid pot is being chased by many NGOs,” he said, “but many of our communities are still not benefiting fully at the moment. The delivery systems for the NGOs, including many of the leading private groups, are still very slow, ponderous and burdensome.
“We have done everything we can to make sure that the donors and NGOs know that, truly, we are fast running out of time,” Archbishop Warda said. “It is a tremendous frustration to us that there still seems to be such a disconnect on this issue.”
“If Christianity is to survive here,” he said, “there needs to be a more dynamic and creative approach to helping our communities quickly and effectively.”
Archbishop Warda expects significant new assistance to reach Nineveh’s Christians because of the passage of the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act (also known as H.R. 390), signed into law by President Trump on Dec. 11. The law was introduced by U.S. House Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey and a longtime advocate for the Christian communities of Iraq. It will allow U.S. funding to be directed to entities besides the Iraqi central government, including faith-based and religious organizations that are helping with recovery and stabilization efforts. Few in the region have much confidence in Baghdad’s effectiveness in handling aid, so the ability to fund nongovernment actors is significant.
Archbishop Warda said the effort was “a start, but much more needs to be done.”
“This is a crucial and historic bill for all [Iraqi] minorities to allow them to live lives with dignity and peace, with freedom of faith,” he said. “The bill is a great encouragement not only to the minorities but also to the Iraqi people in general. We have had too much war for far too many years, and we need to sow the seeds of peace and reconciliation in our [war-torn] society.”
He said the Iraqi people need to understand “that a civilized society can only exist with mutual respect and dignity.”
“Those who act against such vital human values need to and will be brought to justice; they need to understand that no stone will be left unturned to bring them to justice,” he said.
In addition to creating new avenues for aid delivery, H.R. 390 enables the U.S. State Department—in collaboration with other federal agencies—to conduct criminal investigations and apprehend individuals identified as alleged ISIS members and to identify warning signs of genocide and threats of persecution.
According to the archbishop, that should mean ISIS terrorists will face a lifetime of pursuit for their crimes. “I have always been impressed how governments will never cease in their fight against terrorism,” he said. “That was admirably demonstrated in the...search for justice of the victims of the 1988 Pan Am attack over Lockerbie, [Scotland], a cowardly act of terrorism.
Regrettably, he said, he is still waiting for signs of competent security assistance and cooperation from Baghdad.
“I expect H.R. 390 will be in the same vein and [will produce] the same determination,” he said. “H.R. 390 will send a strong message to those who do not respect the rule of law about what a civilized society means.”
In terms of improving the security situation in a region still menaced by remnants of ISIS and confronting new political and ethnic tensions, Archbishop Warda hopes to see a more authoritative role from the Iraqi central government. “We need a federal police force, and [Christians need] to be no longer dependent on others” for defense and security, he said. “I know currently this may be an ideal, but we have to work for it. Otherwise we cannot grow as a country.”
As the Trump administration made plans this week to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Archbishop Warda urged that U.S. forces and the international community remain on the ground in Iraq “to train such a federal police force manned fairly by all citizens of Iraq.”
“It is crucial to remove all the militias,” he said, “and that includes Christian ones. The rule of law needs to come back to Iraq and be enforced by one agency and one agency alone.
“Security remains a paramount issue for not only the minorities but also for the [Sunni population],” he said. “The Hashd al-Shaabi [a Shiite militia] helped in the fight against ISIS, but they now need to return to their homeland [in southern Iraq]. They are increasing their presence and this is unsettling for the minorities and Sunnah.”
Members of this Shiite militia have buying houses in once predominantly Christian villages such as Bartella and Bashiqa, he said. “We have had enough conflict in Iraq to last a lifetime,” the archbishop said. “It is time to stop it now and prevent a build-up for another potential conflict through forced population change.”
Regrettably, he said, he is still waiting for signs of competent security assistance and cooperation from Baghdad. “I can only hope that H.R. 390 will awaken them to their responsibility to provide and apply the rule of law. People need to know that their government cares about their right for protection, not to behave in an arbitrary way of self-interest by a few people. The law must be applied consistently and impartially.”
He said the religious and ethnic minorities of northern Iraq “feel neglected and forgotten.”
“The new government needs to win that trust back,” Archbishop Warda said, “especially for the minorities and other displaced persons.” He said many remain concerned about “a resurgent ISIS in a different form” and the government’s capacity to stop it.
“It should be incumbent on the government to rebuild the minds of its people away from the mentality of ISIS that still remains,” he said. “No one expected the Islam in Mosul was to be so reactionary and brutal.
“The government needs to bring back trust its people and to be ruled by its people and not outsiders. We are all talented enough as a nation to stand on our own two feet. We need to see a visionary government committed to reconciliation,” Archbishop Warda said.
“I am convinced that if the rule of law comes back in the shape of a federal police force,” the archbishop said, “many of our communities in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey will come back to their villages here.”
As Christian communities across Nineveh continue efforts to restore the housing and infrastructure demolished by ISIS or by the months-long campaign to dislodge the militants by Iraqi and U.S. military, the Diocese of Erbil has been sponsoring its own good works. According to Archbishop Warda, the city’s first Catholic hospital, the Maryamana (Mother Mary) is nearing completion. It is an obvious source of pride. “It will have 75 beds, seven operating theaters, 14 consulting rooms and a staff of 120 people,” the archbishop said. “It will provide the best medical care with the best medical equipment.
“In my mission to be a ‘church of the people,’ it will most certainly address the health concerns of the poor, the elderly and [internally displaced people],” Archbishop Warda said. “It will serve all faiths. The Maryamana will be a great and welcome sign to our people that—with our churches, university, schools and seminary—we have a future and purpose in Iraq.”
In other positive developments, the village of Batnaya “has now been opened.” Archbishop Warda said it was crucial that humanitarian aid reach this Christian village as soon as possible to encourage its former residents to return from cities where they found sanctuary like Erbil and Dohuk. “They have waited far too long and want to see immediate help,” he said.
See Kevin Clarke’s reports from Iraq: