I write on behalf of the remaining Christians of Northern Iraq, a threatened and persecuted population, which looks warily to the coming years.
In the three years since the onset of the crisis, when over 100,000 displaced Christians fled Nineveh with death at their heels and arrived at our doors in Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, our Archdiocese has played the lead role in providing care and hope for the vast majority of these people. In this ongoing crisis, we remain always grateful for the solidarity with our friends worldwide, whose generosity has kept us in a position of viability, albeit a tenuous one.
How important has this solidarity been to us during this time? In brief, it has been everything. For without the solidarity of humanitarian outreach from our friends in private, faith-based organizations around the world, we would not have survived these past three years. While the established institutional aid structures ignored us, our friends from the private aid community, large and small, kept us in their hearts and took action to save us.
In looking back on this time, we must note as well the critical support of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in opening the borders to the displaced Christians during their flight, and for providing us with the space and security to house our people in safety over the past three years. We are grateful, as well, for the moral support that the leaders of the KRG have shown to us by publicly participating in the celebration of our most Holy days, and granting us the practical support necessary to open our medical clinics, schools, and our new university, the Catholic University in Erbil.
Overall we pray that this solidarity may continue, for we are in a time in which Christianity itself will continue to be threatened and persecuted throughout the Mideast — indeed, throughout much of the world — until the minds that have been taught violence and hate can come to see the greater truth of mercy and love, which is inherently common to us all.
In saying this, I wish that I could tell you that our crisis in Iraq has passed, that our people can safely return to their homes, and that our problems have now been resolved. But that is not the case. This coming year may yet prove to be the most dangerous for us since the beginning of the crisis.
While it is true that the Christian lands have been liberated from ISIS, what is left in the wake of the war presents us with still enormous problems to overcome. Our towns in many cases have been destroyed. This includes homes, and also the power and water systems. Many of those who wish to return have no houses left to return to. Those homes left standing were in most cases looted and stripped of even their wiring and plumbing.
Nineveh, our ancient Christian homeland, remains a disputed territory, caught between the governments in Erbil and Baghdad, along with all the other foreign powers who seek to intervene and control Iraq, whether directly or indirectly. Meanwhile, especially in the Iraqi-controlled sector, the security situation remains uncertain, with rival militias seeking power over each other, often acting as proxies from outside powers. If these powers enter into new conflict, we Christians know only one thing — that we will be the collateral damage once again.
What then can we, and those who support and value our continued existence in Iraq, do during this time of transition to take care of our people?
The immediate and greatest priority must be to return the displaced Christians to their homes wherever it is possible to do so. A world whose conscience feels for us at all must support these efforts and do so now, while the demographic future of Nineveh is so clearly at risk. We must be clear in this: The future of Nineveh will be decided by the action or inaction that is taken in these next few months. Absent support for the right and ability of Christians to return to their homes, the makeup of Nineveh — and with it, the plurality of Iraq — may be changed forever.
At the same time, we must not abandon those who cannot yet return to their homes. As much as we seek to encourage our displaced people and help them in returning, we must make sure they have a livable home to return to. It would be wrong for us, and the world, to force them now into a homeless situation, for these people will then decide to leave Iraq for good. As such, we will remain in a time of transition over the coming months, and in this we will continue to need support.
In terms of the threatened church, which is facing violent external, even existential threats, how can we work towards a viable future? In the Middle East, we see a Christianity that faces ongoing violent persecution, even genocide. Very little of this persecution is now happening in secret. In this day of instant communications, this violence is shown to all of us almost immediately. And yet it seems so often that our governments and our institutions are unable, or refuse, to truly act.
In Iraq, we Christians faced a persecution that not only sought to destroy our church, but also to destroy us as a people by forcing us, under threat of death, from our historic homelands, after which they sought to remove all traces of our culture and heritage. Our present efforts and hopes to return to our homes have received sympathetic words from Western governments, but so far little else.
We learn now, with great sorrow and pain, that lawyers at the United States State Department have begun taking quiet moves, in the dark, so it would seem, to rescind the Genocide declaration made over one year ago by former Secretary of State John Kerry. Once again, the Christians of Iraq find themselves on the receiving end of yet another ruse. One can only wonder what those behind this effort contemplate in terms of the irreparable damage being done here to the diminishing credibility of their government’s word.
As for our future, we look to rebuild where we can, and contribute as full citizens with equal rights under a legitimate sovereign government, as chosen freely by the people. We urge the governments of Kurdistan and Iraq to resolve the issue of the disputed territories of Nineveh now, and we implore the West to ensure that this takes place in a peaceful fashion.
Beyond all this, we ask those in power in the West to not turn their eyes from us. Iraq first embraced Christianity almost 2,000 years ago. Our population, 1.5 million in 2003, is perhaps less than 300,000 today. We are an ancient people on the verge of extinction, seeking only to live our lives in peace. Today we live our days in extremis. We did not arrive at this place on our own.
• Most Reverend Bashar Warda, C.Ss.R., is Archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq.