Friday, 18 March 2011

Archbishop Warda speaks out about suffering Christians in Iraq

Arcbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil in Iraq gave a frank assessment of the crisis surrounding Iraq's Christians last night, at the launch of Aid to the Church in Need's new report on religious freedom Persecuted and Forgotten?

Below is the full text of his speech. You can also find out more about the countries featured in Persecuted and Forgotten? at

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I thank you for the honor to mark the launch of the 2011 edition of Aid to the Church in Need’s report on Christians oppressed for their faith, titled Persecuted and Forgotten?

As I begin I would like to specifically thank Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director for ACN  and John Pontifex for hosting this visit and for welcoming me here.

This report and the work of Aid to Church in Need are critical to us as members of the worldwide Christian community. This information will significantly contribute to  building international support and solidarity for Christians around the world where our human rights to religious freedom has been stripped away. 

As the report states, in many countries, like Iraq, the situation for Christians seems to be worsening, sometimes to the point were we wonder if we will survive as a people in our own country.  There is no doubt that the political turmoil and growing nationalist struggles in Iraq are contributing to the loss of our religious freedoms.

But this is not a time to hide our faith or our identity over such struggles.  In Iraq, 40 years of war and oppression have strengthened our endurance and our resolve to stand strong and to claim our legal and historical right as a Church and as a people in Iraq.  We have not come this far to give up.  Through the international support and solidarity that this report will create, I believe we can be stronger in our unity and more strategic in our search for sustainable solutions.  

In the Middle East in particular, the people of our region both Christians and non-Christians are bringing themselves out of centuries of persecution, ignorance, and under development.  We are embroiled in a regional crisis.  Not merely a political crisis, where we are relentlessly bullied by politial militia for land, oil, or political votes.  Not only a crisis of faith where we are called to suffer, sometimes to suffer more than seems bearable for the sake of our religious beliefs.  And then to suffer again as we face the lack of support by the world’s churches and western governments.
What we Iraqis are suffering is a something a crisis in cultural change.  We are living in a region which cannot decide if it is for democracy or for Islamic law. It cannot decide if it is for the rights of human beings to live in freedom in all its exciting and challenging forms, OR if it is for the control of the spirit and the minds of its people.  This is the kind of control that welcomes the terrorist methods of intimidation, kidnapping and killing of religious minorities.   

The Middle East, now, is a crescent, fertile for terror and domination.  A region founded upon a cultural and social environment that has depended on violence to keep its societies divided.  History and a tribal mentality have been used to maintain that violence and those divisions. The Crusades, the aggressive West, Israel and American Christians are pointed to as the enemies.  Yet, in reality, the enemy is within.
What Iraqis are left with is a weak constitution that tries to please two masters --- on the one hand the premise of human rights supposedly for all its citizens, yet on the other hand, Islamic law for its majority of Muslims.  Islamists are not the only ones at fault.  Secularists with an eye for profit are also responsible.  Neighboring governments in the region feeding the insurgents with money and weapons to destabilize the government are also responsible.  The rest of world’s governments have turned their backs on us, as if the human rights abuses and near genocide conditions Iraqi Christians experience, are temporary.

Yet for nearly 50 years, Christians in Iraq have suffered displacement and negligence. Here is a picture of the 233 Christian villages in northern Iraq in 1961. Dozens of those villages were destroyed in the 1950s and 60’s as Iraq evolved from a kingdom to a republic and this displacement continued into the years of Saddam Hussein.

Moreover, Christian history is noticeably absent from the Iraqi history books used in our public schools.  Our place as one of the original inhabitants of the region, has been wiped from collective memory. We are merely one of the non-Muslim, minority inhabitants of Iraq, lacking all the rights and rewards that full citizenship in a real democracy should bring us. 

During the Gulf War years, the Christian population in Iraq was estimated between 1.2 and 1.4 million.  By 2003, it had dropped by over half a million.  Iraq’s Christian population now numbers less that 500,000 and this figure is highly optimistic. 

Iraqi Christians live primarily in Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Erbil and Mosul and in small towns in the Nineveh plains of the north.  Close to two-thirds of Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church, and roughly one-fifth belong to the Assyrian Church of the East. The rest belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Catholic Church, and various protestant denominations. 

As you can see in these two maps main Iraqi Christian population centers are located along disputed boundaries between Iraq and Kurdistan and in areas with strong extremist militia presence.

Christians tend to be persecuted by majority populations for two reasons: 

1. Their Christian faith, which is not accepted in Iraq by Islamic fundamentalists
2. For political purposes to control land and resource allocation in the disputed areas.

Since the occupation of Iraq in 2003, an estimated 403 to 573 Christians have been killed in religious and politically motivated conflicts.  Forty percent of the killings took place in northern Iraq, 58% in the Baghdad region and 2% in the south.

Killings of Christians began in earnest in 2003 when the first translator was killed in Baghdad. In 2006, targeted killings of Christian leaders escalated when an Orthodox Christian priest, Boulos Iskander, was kidnapped, beheaded and dismembered despite payment of a ransom.

Between 2006 and 2010, 17 Iraqi priests and 2 Iraqi Bishops were kidnapped in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk. Many were held for days; some for weeks.  All were beaten or tortured by their kidnappers. Most were released, but one bishop, four priests and three sub-deacons were killed.  In most cases, those responsible for the crimes stated they wanted Christians out of Iraq. 

These kidnappings and murders have left their mark on the minds and bodies of the Iraqi churches.  Not only were these men deeply wounded, but their fellow priests, families, and congregations live with the memory of these crimes and the awareness of their daily vulnerabilities as Christians in Iraq. 

Not only have our religious leaders been murdered, but also simple families, shop keepers, children, teachers, the elderly, mothers and their babies, and members of all element of Christian society. 

In Iraq, Christians suffer intimidations daily.  
·   Direct threats using intimidating letters with bullets placed inside
·   Text messages direct sent to families named in the messages
·   Direct threats, person-to-person on the streets
·   Threatening language from police and army representatives
·   Breaking into houses, stealing possessions or making extortion threats
·   Threatening graffiti with Koranic text
·   Armed men standing in front of Christian homes or in cars and then leaving
·   Text messages about kidnapping children from their schools

Also, our college students are severly intimidated. In Mosul, women are required to wear hijab and are not allowed to talk to male students. Thousands of college students have delayed their studies or transferred to Erbil for their course work. 

Now I would like to talk to you about the systematic bombing campaign of Iraqi churches.  The first Iraqi church was bombed in June, 2004 in Mosul.  Following that event, successive campaigns have occurred and a total of 66 churches have been attacked or bombed; 41 in Baghdad, 19 in Mosul, 5 in Kirkuk and 1 in Ramadi. In addition, 2 convents, 1 monastery and a church orphanage was bombed.  

The first Campaign of bombed churches took place on August 1 2004 at the Church of Saint Peter and Paul in Al Dora. That day, 6 churches were bombed across Iraq.    

Because of the violence in Al Dora in 2006, which included not only bombings but also kidnapping and murders, the start of courses was delayed at Babel Pontifical College of Theology and Philosophy.  Realizing that the students and priests would be in danger if they remained, the College and related Seminary were moved to Erbil in 2007.  A new College and Seminary were built in 2008 and classes now are filled to capacity. 

As I am sure most of you know from the news, on 31 October 2010, 58 people, including 51 hostages and 2 priests, were killed after an attack on Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad.  A group affiliated to Al-Qaida, Islamic State for Iraq, stated that Christians were a "legitimate target."  You may also remember that weeks after that event, a series of bombings and mortar attacks targeted Christian-majority areas of Baghdad, in one case killing a woman who was a hostage and had survived the attack on Our Lady of Salvation.  

There are thousands of examples of overwhelming suffering among Iraqi Christians.  Two come to my mind here that I would like to tell you about. 

One is the story of the father of a teacher in our kindergarten in Ankawa.  Last year Mr. Dahan was the first of at least eight Iraqi Christians killed in Mosul prior to the elections.  The abduction that ended in his death was the second time he had been kidnapped. Two years before, he had been abducted, beaten and stuffed in the trunk of a car until the family could collect the $5000 ransom.  

The family says that after he returned the first time, they didn’t leave Mosul because their father would not move. “Our father said, ‘if all of us Christians leave, who is going to stay in the land of the prophets and pray in our churches?’ " "He said, ‘we were all born in Mosul and we will die in Mosul.’ ”

A second story is about my friend Father Mazen from Qaraqosh.  Father Mazen was kidnapped 4 days after he had been ordained a priest.  He was released but a year later armed men entered his home and killed his father and two brothers in front of his mother and sister in law.   Despite this tragedy, Father Mazen serves the displaced families in his congregation in Qaraqosh with unfaltering faith. 

As I mentioned, there are thousands of examples of such senseless injury and killing.  The grief and sorrow in our congregations is palpable, where not one person has been uneffected by tragedy since 2003.  Moreover, each family has suffered decades of losses from the Saddam regime, the sanctions prior to the occupation, the devastation of the Gulf War as well as the Iran/Iraq War.  Iraqis are a people who have experienced immense suffering but who are also strong, resilient and prepared to claim their right to existance.

Christian Internal Displacement, Migration and the Diaspora

The Kurdistan region, overall, has been a relocation site for over 55,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from other cities in Iraq in the past 7 years.  The population has grown significantly since the military events of 2003. 

More recently, following the systematic intimidation and violence prior to the elections in 2010 and after the church bombing, about 4000 Christian families fled Iraq’s cities to Erbil.  Probably twice this have move from both Baghdad and Mosul City into the Nineveh Valley, an area to the north where life is relatively safer and more affordable. 

Over the past 8 years our Erbil Diocese Immigration Committee has registered over 3000 families displace by conflict.  Not all families register so we know this is an under estimate of the size of those who have moved.  But as you can see the situation has worsened 2011 as we are only now in March.

Most of the families we have registered come from Baghdad and Mosul.

Decades of conflict and recent traumatic incidents have severely affected the overall well being of Church families in all of Iraq but Mosul, itself, has been devastated.   In the last 5 years, the population of the Mosul Chaldean Diocese has decreased from 29,000 to 13,000.  Because the Mosul Diocese is just next to the Erbil Diocese, we feel the effects of their needs directly.

Before 2003 there were 11 active Chaldean parishes in Mosul diocese, now there are only 5.  Three of the remaining parishes in the older part of Mosul have only between 25 to 50 remaining families.  Most of them live under extreme security risks and do not venture far from their homes daily. 

At this time, there are about 2,800 original families remaining in parishes in the Mosul diocese.  Six parishes have closed in the recent seven years as thousands of families have been forced out of Mosul to its surrounding towns and villages through violent intimidation and death. In just the past few months, well over 600 families made their way from Mosul to Nineveh valley villages, many in fear of their lives.

In addition, at least 400 families have recently migrated into Nineveh Governorate from Baghdad, also because of intimidation.     

Moving from a home of generations to seek security, of quitting one’s employment, and taking the children from their schools is not a decision made easily.  It is also impossible to stay on the move in Iraq searching for an affordable home, for work, and for safety, while waiting for your own city to become safe.  It is probable that Iraqis facing such decisions will be preparing to leave their historical Christian homeland in the near future if they cannot find the security they need in Iraq. 

It is difficult to know exactly how many Iraqi Christians live outside Iraq, but estimates suggest that over half the population has fled the country with hundreds of thousands in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. At least a million more Iraqis live in the US, the United Kingdom, the European Union,  Australia, and many other countries. 

The Current Situation of Need for Christians in Iraq

Iraqi families who immigrate out of Iraq are facing significant challenges.  Professionals trained and accredited in Iraq to practice medicine, law, and other professions, find themselves working in unskilled labor.  The cost of living, health care, education and survival has taken such a toll on some families, that they find themselves accepting financial help from family members here in Iraq. 

Moreover, international resettlement policies are uncoordinated so that many families are fragmented.  Parents have settled in Europe, while some of their children are in Canada, others children are in Australia and others, refused resettlement, are left in Iraq, Jordan or Syria.

In Erbil, once our Church leaders are assured that our families are safely relocated, we have three main goals to assist them.  First of all we want to provide stability via employment and affordable housing, secondly we want to be sure that families have access to good education and medical care and thirdly, and most importantly, we want a vibrant living Church to support the social and spiritual needs of our families.

We are working hard to make these things happen, but the resources of Erbil and its neighboring Dioceses have been stressed because of the high influx of people over this short period. Erbil Diocese has grown by over 30% with churches, schools, health care facilities, housing and basic infrastructures feeling the burden. 

Schools average 35-45 children per class, running in two shifts a day.  Moreover, housing costs have skyrocketed as local homeowners have raised rents 200-300% to take advantage of the housing demand. 

Nineveh Valley has accepted thousands of families over the recent years from Mosul, Kirkuk and Baghdad, but this politically disputed region is in a state of high tension seen between the displaced and the host communities.  Moreover, in the villages around Mosul there just isn’t enough housing or employment available for so many displaced.   

At this time, diocese leaders are raising funds from inside the communities and donor organizations such Aid to Church in Need to build new churches and to restore old and damaged ones.  Classrooms are being built and restored in all our churches to be used for Catechism classes and community education. 

Relocated families need to be educated in the Kurdish language and retrained for employment in the region.  Children need to be tutored as they catch up with classes having interrupted their schooling during displacement.

A new Catholic primary school building has recently been funded to ease the burden of public education in the area.  Church leaders are looking to construct low cost housing for displaced families as a long-term investment against rising land values. Diocese leaders also continue to search for development investments to stimulate the job economy and to employ displaced family members. 

With many problems facing Iraqi Christians, the greatest concern of Diocese leaders is that there are enough strong parishes prepared to assist families as they continue to readjust to their lives; displaced from their jobs, homes, and extended networks. There is concern that if families are not assisted effectively and not embraced by the community, that we will lose them from the Church and to immigration outside of Iraq. 

Lastly we want the presence of the Christians Church to be apparent by a vibrant and active parish life symbolized by physical church buildings and obvious public spaces.  We do not want to hide our faith or identity out of fear for our lives. We want to be seen and remembered by all Iraqis; those who threaten us, but moreover those willing to stand in solidarity with us.

We thank Aid to the Church in Need for your solidarity with us.   We thank, your generous and kind hearted donors and those who have prayed with us and for us these past years of our struggles.

There is a Novena to the Holy Spirit for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East on the Aid to Church in Need Website and I would like to lead you in that prayer now.

“Renew your wonders in this our day as by a new Pentecost” – Pope John XXIII

Father, pour out your Spirit
upon your people,
and grant us
a new vision of your glory,
a new experience of your power,
a new faithfulness to your word, and
a new consecration to your service,
that your love may grow among us,
and your kingdom come:
through Christ our Lord.

God the Holy Spirit,
Comforter and Sanctifier.
Melt our hearts
that we may accept your love.
Renew our minds
that we may know your truth.
Strengthen our wills
that we may serve you faithfully.
Through Christ our Lord.

Prayer for protection
Holy Michael, the Archangel,
defend us in the day of battle;
be our safeguard against the wickedness
and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do thou,
O prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God
thrust down to hell Satan,
and all other evil spirits
who wander through the world
seeking the ruin of Souls.

Our Father, who art in Heaven...
Hail Mary, full of grace...
Glory be to the Father...

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

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