Erbil, Iraq   22 Oct. 2015

“No one has to live in a tent anymore”

Archbishop Warda of Erbil believes that the humanitarian situation of Christian refugees in Iraq has improved – however, it remains serious. More than a year after having fled and been driven out by the terrorist militia “Islamic State”, Christians in Iraq no longer harbour the hope that they will be able to return to their homes anytime soon.

This is what the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Matti Warda, said on Tuesday during a visit to the head office of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “The people are not fooling themselves by believing that the occupied regions can quickly be liberated. In the meantime, we as the church are 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.” In the summer of last year, more than 125000 Christians fled to the autonomous Kurdish regions of Iraq after the “Islamic State” advanced like lightning into Mosul and the Nineveh Plains. The majority continue to live there as refugees.

In the meantime, Archbishop Warda has observed a considerable exodus of Christians from Iraq. “Last year we had 13500 registered Christian refugee families in our archdiocese. Now there are only about 10000 left. This means that more than 3000 families have left Iraq.” News of the stream of refugees from the Middle East to Europe has long since also made the rounds among Iraqi Christians. “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.” However, the bishop said that up until now he has yet to notice an acceleration in the emigration from Iraq due to the events in Europe. “However, of course it does not make our work convincing the people to stay any easier.”

According to Archbishop Warda, the main concern of the church is to offer humanitarian as well as pastoral aid. “Thanks to our partners, the humanitarian situation has in the meantime been stabilised. No one has to live in tents anymore, as they did last year. The majority are now living in caravans or in flats we have rented. Furthermore, with the help of Aid to the Church in Need, we were able to get eight schools up and running so that today, there are practically no children who are not receiving lessons. Naturally, things looked a lot different last year. Finally, our supply network for food is now running smoothly. Each family receives a packet from us each month.” However, the archbishop believes that more Christians would leave the country should the support from outside of the country wane.

The archbishop emphasised that next to humanitarian aid, pastoral care plays a decisive role. “Just recently we held a Festival of Faith. Twelve hundred people took 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.”

However, despite this 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. However, I believe that, in the long term, it will be decisive that those that stay have a mission. We 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. After all, this would be easy to do. What is decisive, however, is living it. 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. Thus, more than 11 million euros were approved for projects in 2014 and this year. This was primarily used to rent living quarters for the people, to build schools and to provide food.

 Oliver Maksan.