An Iraqi bishop grappling with an influx of thousands of displaced people fleeing the Islamic State has urged charities and the UK Government to continue to support Christians and other suffering communities threatened with wipe-out.
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, in Kurdish northern Iraq, met Baroness Joyce Anelay, the Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for Human Rights on Thursday (12th February) at the end of a hectic five-day visit to London in which he laid bare the crisis facing his country’s Christians.
The UK has provided about £40 million in aid for displaced people in Iraq, helping to secure clean water, sanitation and medicines for victims of violence.
The British government also funds meetings among religious leaders in Iraq designed to promote religious tolerance.
The Archbishop’s meeting with Baroness Anelay came a day after the Iraqi prelate addressed a packed Westminster Cathedral Hall about the growing problems facing Iraqi Christians.
The event, organised by charities Aid to the Church in Need and Iraqi Christians in Need, came amid reports showing that Christians in Iraq had fallen from 1.4 million in 1987 to barely 300,000 today.
Of those remaining in the country, many are displaced and seek emigration.
In his talk, Archbishop Warda said: “If you offered a visa to Christians in Iraq, they would leave but they would do so with tears in their eyes.
“Nobody wants to leave Iraq but many people feel persecution has made it impossible for them.”
The Archbishop’s diocese, based in Ankawa, a suburb of the Kurdish capital, Erbil, was one of two main centres in the region which within a few days last August absorbed 125,000 Christians.
They fled towns and villages in nearby Nineveh plains which were overrun by Islamic State militants.
Of those who fled to Kurdistan six months ago, some reports say already 40,000 have since migrated to neighbouring countries and beyond.
Archbishop Warda said that, while he and other bishops wanted to encourage the Christians to stay, they had no wish to “force” them.
He said: “None of the Christians wants to leave Iraq but many people feel persecution has made it impossible for them.”
The archbishop said he wanted to build up proper housing, schools and job opportunities to encourage people to stay in the country if they so wished.
He thanked Aid to the Church in Need and Iraqi Christians in Need for offering emergency support since the displaced first arrived in Kurdistan.
As well as providing food and shelter, ACN has provided eight schools in Dohuk and Ankawa for up to 15,000 children.
ICIN provided emergency relief for Christians from Mosul fleeing Islamic State, caravans and other temporary accommodation for displaced people, medicine for people in Erbil and heating for those in Dohuk.
The archbishop told the 300 or more present: “Thank you for your prayers – please be assured that we will help all of the Christians who would like to stay.
“We are very grateful for your prayers and your help and your voice. Your voice should be very powerful.”
The event in the cathedral hall, which was chaired by Aid to the Church in Need UK National Director Neville Kyrke-Smith, came two days after a meeting in the House of Lords sponsored by Lord Alton of Liverpool.
Speaking to a packed room made up of peers, MPs, journalists, charity and other NGO representatives, Archbishop Warda stressed the need for military intervention, highlighting the importance of strategic and logistical support, training and intelligence.
He reiterated his call for British involvement in Iraq in an address given the following day at a Synod of the Church of England in Church House, Westminster.
The Archbishop also met Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, briefing him about the crisis facing Christianity in Iraq.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN).