Iraqi archbishop visits FUS

STEUBENVILLE — The archbishop of Erbil, Iraq, says he gets angry sometimes at the persecution of Christians and religious minorities in his nation, but he projects hope and sees the hand of God in his days.

Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, visited the Franciscan University of Steubenville Monday and delivered a speech about the ongoing persecution. The university announced a scholarship for a Middle Eastern student to study at Franciscan, with the goal of providing leaders to return to the Middle East for the material and spiritual transformation of the region.

“Despite all the difficulties and persecution that the Christians are suffering, there is still the chance to speak about hope. You might say hope against hope,” Warda said in an interview Monday morning.

In 2003, there were an estimated 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq. The number is down to between 175,000 and 300,000, according to Warda’s diocese. Thousands of refugees poured into his diocese at the height of the conflict.

He founded the Catholic University in Erbil in 2015.

He said American Catholics need to know the church is one body.

“If I suffer, you suffer. If you suffer, I will suffer. Second, they need to know there are still persecuted Christians. You need to pray for the Christians. You need to read about their story. You need also to keep raising awareness about their stories. Donate if you can,” he said. “If you have some time to come and visit us and to be with us, this would leave you with a spirit of knowing why you’re a Christian.”

Aid to the Church in Need USA and the Franciscan University of Steubenville have partnered for the Middle Eastern scholarship. Warda said it is important.

“Once we started the process of building a university and Catholic schools, we needed a trained, well-experienced personnel in the field of Catholic education to teach us, to guide us through this process,” he said. “When it comes from a university, which also faced difficulties and a crisis concerning the Catholic identity, I would say we are in a similar situation in that sense. I’m really grateful for this opportunity that we will be blessed by people who will be willing to guide and help our students, to train them for awhile and to send them back again to home and rebuilding the church.”

The Islamic State has forced thousands of Iraqi Christians to convert to Islam, pay exorbitant taxes or be executed. Many fled to the area around Erbil, filling Warda’s diocese with Christians in flight.

Even with the departure of ISIS, many do not want to return to their former homes and parishes. Warda said there aren’t many homes to return to for the displaced families, with as many as 14,000 homes and basic infrastructure destroyed in his region. He respects those who return and those who are still afraid, and his parishes continue to aid them. Many remain in Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon, too.

“Really, we’d love them to stay in Iraq,” he said.

He said homes are needed first. Schools and hospitals are a priority.

“Last, we’d be thinking of restoring churches,” he said. Church buildings aren’t “the church,” but the people are.

Warda said persecution isn’t just about what happens with wars and violence.

Warda said a Chaldean bishop in Australia told him, “Bashar, you know, to live in the Middle East as a Christian, it’s much easier for you than to be a Christian in Australia today. Everything (in Australia) is attacking you and it’s not killing the body. It’s killing the spirit.”

He said his friend told him of efforts to preach about a gay marriage referendum and being rejected.

“There (in the Middle East), you are persecuted because you are a Christian. Here, you are being told ‘We tolerate you as a Christian but, please — keep silent,'” he said. “You cannot compromise. You cannot be a quiet person.”

He said a personal relationship with God is the way to stay alive.

Facing persecution and its results, Warda said, there are days where it’s possible to feel there’s nothing left to say. He was ordained in 1993, and had spent compulsory service in Saddam Hussein’s army in his younger days. His entire priesthood has occurred during time of war through the Middle East.

“But at the end of the day, the hands of God are working in a way that you can’t really think about,” he said. “When I think about the last few years, there were so many nights where we slept with problems. What am I going to do with 700 families who are in the cathedral? What are we going to do in this area?”

He said in Erbil, the church isn’t just a “point of reference.” It’s expected to be an active participant in all kinds of humanitarian works.

“If you need a job, you go to the bishop. He should find you a job. If you have a problem with any person, you go to the bishop. If you have problems, you don’t go to the police station. You go to the bishop,” he said. “For anything, it’s the bishop.”

Even the government asks the church to intervene in matters.

But, he said, hope intervenes.

“We wake up and there is a call from a friend, from someone who wants to help, or an e-mail of approval for a project. Thank God, we’ve been blessed by the hands of love by Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Relief Service” and others, he said. “So many people are praying for us. The list is large.”