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Good News for Iraq’s Christians: More Autonomy, Less Dhimmitude

Image: Courtesy of Archbishop Bashar Warda
Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda stands in front of the Catholic University of Erbil, located in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital city’s Ankawa district.

This week, the Christian enclave of Ankawa in Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, was designated by the autonomous region’s prime minister as an official district, giving believers there administrative autonomy starting next week.

They will directly elect their own mayor, and have charge of security.

Prime Minister Masrour Barzani called Ankawa a home for “religious and social coexistence, and a place for peace.”

Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, called it an “important” and “strategic” decision.

“Our confidence in the future of Kurdistan makes us encourage Christians not only to stay,” he said, “but also to invest in this region.”

Ordained a priest in 1993, Warda was consecrated in his current position in 2010. With Iraq’s hemorrhaging of Christians since the 2003 US invasion, Warda’s bishopric in the autonomous Kurdish region soon became a providential band-aid.

Beginning in 2014, ISIS drove Christians from Mosul and their traditional homeland in the Nineveh Plains, and thousands took refuge in Erbil and other cities in the secure northeast. From 1.5 million Christians in 2003, the Chaldean Catholic church now estimates a population of fewer than 275,000 Christians.

Warda has long been investing to turn the tide.

In 2015, he established the Catholic University of Erbil, and has coordinated relief aid from governments and charities alike. The situation stabilized following ISIS’s defeat in 2017.

But freedom does not come from politics alone. Two years ago, Christians endorsed widespread popular uprisings against the political class. Violently suppressed, the movement’s main celebrated achievement was early elections under a new law designed to promote better local and small-party representation.

Polls open on October 10, and a quota gives Christians five of 329 seats in parliament. However, Warda’s Baghdad-based patriarch has called for a Christian boycott, fearing fraud.

Warda wants a Christian revival. Buoyed by the March visit of Pope Francis, he believes that ISIS broke the fundamental religious and cultural underpinnings of Islamic superiority. Christians no longer are seen as second-class citizens.

In an interview on the sidelines of the IRF Summit convened in Washington in July, Warda told CT about his welcome of missionaries, the Catholic way of witnessing to Muslims, and whether a revived Christian influence in Iraq will lead to future church growth.

Since the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, what challenge has been hardest for the church?

With all the displaced people, images of scattered tents immediately come to mind. But the hard part is not to provide them with food, sanitation, or medical supplies. This is not easy, but it is obvious.

The hard part is to restore their dignity. They understand that ISIS is a criminal gang. And they can bear the wounds of the innocent, knowing they had nothing to do with this dispute.

But their question is “Why?” yet also “What now?”

Men are the providers for the family. Sitting around doing nothing, they tell me, “Bishop, we don’t want money; we want a job. I want to deserve my food.”

Suppose there is aid sufficient to rebuild homes, churches, and schools and even to provide jobs. You have said that this is not enough. It does not establish the basis of citizenship and pluralism.

That is true. But without homes, churches, schools, and jobs, the people will leave the country. And then there are no citizens left.

With a rebuilt community, you can go to the government to speak about the constitution, defending the people’s full rights under the law. There is a link. First have the community; then talk about implementing ideals.

Before ISIS, when the community was stable, were you able to seek your rights?

For 1,400 years there was a sort of social contract: Islam is the religion of the nation, and you are the People of the Book. But know that Islam is the honorable religion of God, which means you are second. In the Quran it says…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 8, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.