Christians in Middle East have a ‘vocation’ to stay

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Mgr Bashar Matti Warda

Mgr Bashar Matti Warda, Chaldean Archbishop. [Benoit Lanoo]

The violence and terror of IS has effectively driven all Christians and Yazidis from their homes in Iraq. To stay in the Middle East or not – that’s the most pressing question for refugees in the region, writes Benoit Lannoo.

Benoit Lannoo was spokesman at the Cabinet of Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Joëlle Milquet, in charge of Employment and Equal Opportunities in the Leterme I government (March-December 2008). He is now a communications consultant and political strategist at the Vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen.

“Do not pretend the West isn’t concerned by what’s happening with IS terrorism in the Middle East”, Mgr Bashar Matti Warda, Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, recently said while visiting Belgium and the European institutions. “Aren’t a lot of those IS warriors not your citizens, having Western passports? Why do Occidental countries not bring their IS warriors back home, to be treated for their ideological sickness in the West?”

Father Warda of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer was not yet 40-years old when he was chosen to be Archbishop in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region in Northern Iraq, in 2009. His biggest challenge has been the Internal Displaced Persons (IDPs), of which the region has had to host 125,000 more since August 2014. The violence and terror of IS has effectively driven all Christians and Yazidis from their homes in Sinjar, Mosul and the Nineveh Plain.

“Let us call it what is really was: an ethnic cleansing.” The Chaldean Archbishops deeply regrets the weakness of the reactions of Islamic authorities worldwide. “They all seem much more concerned about the image of Islam than about the victims of the IS atrocities. Have you ever heard a word of apology? Do those victims have no rights anymore? How will they be able to defend their rights if we don’t acknowledge them?”

With the help of Kurdistan Regional Government and a range of international organisations, the Chaldean Church makes an effort to host all refugees in the most decent manner possible. “None of the refugees are living in tents anymore. The Church is renting houses for many, sheltering the rest in temporary container units.” This huge operation benefits from the help of nongovernmental partners, such as Aid to the Church in Need or Caritas Europe, but desperately needs more institutional support.

For this reason, Mgr Warda was received at the offices of the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy, Johannes Hahn, and at the offices of the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Christos Stylianides. The Chaldean Archbishop also has met the Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Alain Le Roy, since the EEAS is taking an active interest in the matter following the visit of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, to Erbil, last December.

To stay in the Middle East, or not: that’s the question for most of the refugees. Being a child of IDP’s and having stayed in a refugee camp during the first year of his life, Mgr Warda understands the despair of parents hoping for a better future for their children. “Our refugee camps may be very decent, but it’s difficult to see a perspective for the future when you have no job and your children can’t go to school.”

That is why the Chaldean Archbishop has dedicated his lecture at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the Louvain Catholic University held on October 22, to the creation of a Catholic university in Erbil. “Let us remember the ‘Bayt al-Hikma’ (the ‘House of Wisdom’) in the early 8th century, when Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars joint their forces in Baghdad. I’m not planning to build a university exclusively for Christians students; Muslim youngsters will also have their place.”

The Chaldean archbishop of Erbil is convinced that the Christians in the Middle East have “a vocation to stay and to spread their evangelical values. I have seen very often that, wherever a Christian community settles down after fleeing persecution, it takes only a few years before middle-class Muslim families start to move to the area. Christians have schools, services and a way of life that middle-class Muslims appreciate, too”.

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