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In Erbil, Kurdistan, Christian exodus continues, but those who remain are in better shape
"It is our job to build bridges, to live Christian values. It is my dream to also pray the Lord's Prayer together with non-Christians."
By Oliver Maksan
NEW YORK—More than a year after being driven from their homes by ISIS, the many thousands of Iraqi Christians who found shelter in Kurdistan no longer harbor hope that they will be able to return to Mosul and the Nineveh Plain anytime soon.
This harsh reality was confirmed by Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil, the Kurdish capital. He told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: “The people are not fooling themselves by believing that the occupied regions can quickly be liberated. In the meantime, the Church is trying to make it possible for them to stay in Iraq. When the people see the efforts the Church is making on their behalf, they think twice about leaving.”
Nonetheless, many families are opting to emigrate to the West and other countries. The prelate confirmed that “last year we had 13,500 registered Christian refugee families in our archdiocese. Now there are only about 10,000 left. This means that more than 3000 families have left Iraq.” News of the stream of refugees from the Middle East making their way to Europe is also stirring up the communities of Iraqi Christians in Kurdistan.
“We feel the effects of this development in Europe acutely. Of course the people find out about this and believe that the gateway to Europe is now wide open,” said the archbishop, adding, however, that he has yet to notice an increase in the rate emigration from Iraq due to the events in Europe. “However, [developments in Europe] don’t make our work convincing the people to stay any easier,” he said.
At least living conditions of the refugees in Kurdistan have greatly improved, with most of their urgent humanitarian needs amply met. “No one has to live in tents anymore, as they did last year. The majority is now living in caravans or in flats we have rented,” said Archbishop Warda, who noted that “we were able to get eight schools up and running so that today there are practically no children who are not in school. Finally, our supply network for food is now running smoothly. Each family receives a packet from us each month.”
The archbishop said he is certain that more Christians would leave the country should the support from outside of the country wane.
Next to humanitarian aid, pastoral care plays a decisive role as well: “Just recently we held a Festival of Faith, with 1200 people taking part. I was deeply moved by the stories the people told. Many young people spoke of the darkness they had been forced to pass through. After all, when they fled, they not only lost their homes, but also their hopes, joy, trust and dreams.
“However, when they saw that the Church was with them, that priests and nuns stood by them, they took courage once more. Their faith returned. They may no longer have a house, but at least they have a living faith.”
Still, Archbishop Warda is certain that the number of Christians in Iraq will further decline. “The situation is dire. We as the Church are doing what we can. In the long term, it will be decisive that those who stay have a mission. The Christians of Iraq belong to this land. It is our job to build bridges, to live Christian values. It is my dream to also pray the Lord’s Prayer together with non-Christians. The message of the Lord’s Prayer is that God’s love is for all people.”
Aid to the Church in Need has been supporting the Christians in Iraq for many years. With the beginning of the Christian refugee crisis, it greatly intensified its commitment. In 2014 and through the fall of 2015, more than $11M was spent—primarily to rent living quarters, build schools and provide food.
One of the youngest Christians in Erbil, Kurdistan; ACN photo