You only have to follow the news to see the devastating effects of the persecution of Christians playing out throughout the world. We’ve tried our best to follow this story wherever it takes us, mostly through the efforts of Catholic News Service and sometimes with our own reporters, often when a local Mass or prayer service of solidarity takes place at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The topic is always top of mind for Cardinal Dolan, as I can tell you from notes he consistently sends my way mentioning the topic and encouraging coverage in CNY.
Last week, I received an invitation to attend a dinner the National Review Institute’s Center for Religion, Culture and Civil Society was hosting in its midtown Manhattan offices July 19 for Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq.
About 15 people attended, including journalist Kathryn Jean Lopez, who hosted us, as well as New York Auxiliary Bishop Peter Byrne, and other supporters and friends of the archbishop’s ministry and work heading the Archdiocese of Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Erbil is the largest city in the region with an estimated population of some 1.6 million people.
Even though Archbishop Warda, 53, has been a familiar figure to me since Cardinal Dolan’s pastoral visit to Erbil in 2016, I had never met him in person. I was seated next to him for the buffet-style meal and listened closely as he easily engaged other guests throughout dinner before offering remarks to the group.
Parts of his presentation were familiar as I remembered the extensive outreach the Chaldean Church in Erbil, with the assistance of many other Church entities, including the Knights of Columbus, CNEWA, Aid to the Church in Need and the Italian Bishops’ Conference, made in “hosting 13,000 families” fleeing ISIS terror and violence in Mosul, beginning in August 2014.
“After three months, we started a program that took families from camps to houses rented by the Church,” said Archbishop Warda, who was consecrated Archbishop of Erbil in 2010.
“That was one of the blessings, that we were able to maintain those families in a dignified way.”
That evening, and in a personal interview the next day in my office at the New York Catholic Center, where Archbishop Warda came following his meeting at CNEWA headquarters two floors below, he spoke candidly about the wide-ranging expectations that Christians, as well as members of other religions including the Yazidis and even Muslims, bring to him as the Church’s spiritual leader in Erbil.
Whether the concern is about health care, housing, education or another important matter, there is only one answer that is unacceptable, according to the archbishop. “You cannot say, you do not have. You have to say, ‘We will try.’”
“We live in a tribal system,” he said in the interview, “The Christians don’t feel there is someone who will defend them, but the Church.”
Archbishop Warda and those with whom he serves try their best to deliver. One of the big initiatives is education, because it touches the future. A brochure for the St. Thomas Mission for Iraqi Christian Development made available at the dinner gave thumbnail breakdowns of four Catholic elementary and high schools, all established over the past decade, as well as the crown jewel, the Catholic University in Erbil, which was established in 2015.
“The university is a big achievement,” the archbishop said. “This is the eighth year, the number is growing, and my hope is that one day that the university will be the voice for the Christians, for the Yazidis, a strong one.
“The voice, when it comes from a university, it is stronger,” he said.
It’s important to amplify the voice of Christians in Iraq, where they are now fewer than 300,000 people, or less than one percent of a population of 42 million. In 2003, the number of Christians was 1.5 million.
When he was asked if the work he and his collaborators have done has helped to stabilize the Christian community of Erbil, Archbishop Warda’s answer went in a different direction.
Quoting the words of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, he said, “God called me to be faithful, not successful.” He gave the example of his work enabling 500 Christian families to remain in Iraq. If another bishop can say he enables 100 more families to stay, and a third enables 1,000 more, Archbishop Warda says he would like to remain faithful to that joint mission.
“The mandate and the responsibility I have is to care, be the shepherd of the people in Erbil, and the Christians and the persecuted, the oppressed who come around the church,” the archbishop said. “So far, He has showed us the ways.”
The archbishop is in the United States visiting friends and supporters in New York; Washington, D.C.; Detroit, where the Chaldean Catholic diaspora is especially strong; and the Knights of Columbus convention in Nashville. Cardinal Dolan, who was away when Archbishop Warda was in the Big Apple, is normally the first person he greets here. “He is a brother who always kept us in his prayers, never forgot the visit (to Erbil) and to maintain a dignified way of living for the Christians there.”
At the National Review and in our interview, Archbishop Warda spoke about the necessity of promoting alliances and friendships. He also knows New Yorkers and people across the United States are currently facing their own financial hardships and other crises.
Still, he is seeking collaborators to build for a future that he may not be around to see.
“I would not forgive myself if history would look back and say the Church did not do what has to be done,” he said. “We will not see the fruit of this now. It will be 30, 40 or 50 years from now.”