Iraqi Christians challenge our lukewarm faith

The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil in Northern Iraq is a short, stocky man of about 50 years with a tremendous weight on his shoulders. Within his territory in Kurdistan he is responsible for the wellbeing of 125,000 displaced people, mostly Chaldean Christians like himself, but also some Yazidis and some Shia casualties of Islam’s sectarianism.

This is not merely a cure of souls. Archbishop Bashar Warda has taken on the responsibility to feed, shelter, clothe and educate them. For the ancient Christian community on the Plains of Nineveh was in the path of the ISIS territory grab. Faced with the options of converting to Islam, paying the jizya tax or being killed, they fled their homes and headed north to relative safety. They had been stripped of anything valuable and had their passports confiscated, so they left only in the clothes they wore. Many others were killed. ISIS then burnt their homes and looted and vandalised their churches, daubing them with slogans such as “Allah is great” and “No room for Christians here”.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, two-thirds of Iraq’s Christians have left the country. The archbishop is trying against formidable odds to ensure that Christianity does not disappear from these biblical lands. I get the sense that he and his community are genuinely scandalised by the seeming indifference of Western governments to the genocide taking place. It is one thing to be persecuted by those who hate you, and a further level of pain to experience the apparent lack of interest in your suffering among those you thought shared your values. Not that the archbishop gives way to self-pity. He is remarkably joyful and positive. When he speaks of the agony of his people he is dispassionate, matter of fact. It is all the more powerful for that.

Archbishop Warda has come to England to continue to keep the plight of his people before the world. He wants to raise money for the huge task of reconstruction now that ISIS has been driven back and is suffering a substantial loss of territory. He tells us he has had a very positive meeting with the Prince of Wales and is encouraged by how well-briefed the Prince is and how engaged. His community receives substantial support from Aid to the Church in Need and it is through their good offices that he has come to visit our school this morning, since we support ACN as our charity of choice.

His brief address holds the boys rapt. He avoids anything too sensational or distressing. The juxtaposition of photographs of burnt-out churches and decapitated statues of Our Lady with the innocent and even smiling faces of children in the refugee camps tells its own eloquent story. The boys’ stillness and level of absorption indicate their sympathy for the humanitarian suffering, but also some sympathetic outrage at the desecration.

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