Here is the text of an address given Tuesday by Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Iraq, to the Knights of Columbus gathered for their annual Supreme Convention.
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Greetings in Christ the Redeemer,
I speak to you from Iraq, the land of ancient Mesopotamia, where we have worshipped as Christians since the apostles Thomas and Thaddeus first brought us the teachings of Christ, nearly 2,000 years ago. But friends, this most ancient of Christian communities, from which I bring you our warmest blessings and greetings, is now in perhaps its most perilous time ever. With the brutal attacks by ISIS in the summer of 2014 against our faithful in the city of Mosul, and then the Christian towns of the Nineveh Plain, more than 125,000 of our brothers and sisters were violently and forcibly displaced. Forced to flee for their lives, these Christians have had to leave their houses, properties, past, and indeed their very heritage behind them. Churches and holy places where people had worshipped for centuries have now been destroyed and desecrated, the Holy Cross replaced by the flag of ISIS. Many of these families fled to the relative safety of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq where now they wonder how their lives can go forward. Brothers and Sisters, these people are in our care, yours and mine, and I speak to you on their behalf now.
Truly, the Christians of Iraq face a dangerous and difficult future. It is heartbreaking for us to see unprecedented numbers of our faithful leaving their homeland to face a frightening and unknown future as refugees with little hope in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, with others planning to leave as well. As a church, we have no option other than to pray for them. To be an internally displaced person, or IDP, in your own land is an extraordinarily tragic experience to go through. Although we are deeply concerned and worried about the prevailing political, security, cultural and economic situation, as a church we are not in the position to convince anyone to stay or leave. From a practical standpoint, despite our ongoing efforts, we do not yet have enough ready jobs which might encourage wage earners to stay.
So far, more than 5000 families have left the country since the summer of 2014. Some have been welcomed into Europe, the States, or Australia, but many more families are now in refugee camps simply waiting for their number to be called. They are in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and their future is on indefinite hold for years, perhaps decades. Meanwhile, their meager resources dwindle to nothing and they live an existence which sits on the border of despair.
We have to admit, as a church, that we were not prepared at all for the crisis which landed upon us last summer. It never occurred to any of us that we would overnight experience what our ancestors did at the hands of the Turks a hundred years ago ñ the need to flee for our lives. We were invested in our homes and villages, busy as a church and as a people, with work, pastoral activities, catechism and the promotion of a deeply rooted Christian life and purpose. What befell us has disrupted and fractured everything we held close except our faith.
But we know we have not been completely alone, and we continue to make such efforts as we can to fight against despair and the evil which lies beneath it. Through the support and prayers of benevolent people like you we have sought during this crisis to ease the needs of our IDP families and provide them with the basic needs for subsistence wherever we have happened to find them. We have made shelters of church gardens and halls, catechism classrooms, public schools, tents, incomplete building structures, and in rented houses where we have had to accommodate some 20-30 individuals per house.
Realizing that the crisis is going to take a long time and as winter was approaching, we took quick steps to lease houses for refugees in different sections of the province of Erbil to accommodate 2000 families and to set up 1700 single room pre-fab homes. Now, all of our Christian IDP’s are in at least a semi-permanent dwelling. This is far from ideal, but certainly an improvement on the original tents and semi-completed buildings which had been the best we could do for many.
In extending your hand of help to us, your had expressed your hope that we work towards providing decent accommodation and secure job opportunities. To that end we approached you asking for the construction of low cost housing, towards which your charity was so generous. We continue to work on this project for which the Kurdistan Regional Government has allocated us a 27 hectare plot of land, which I have in turn requested them to allocate to the Christian Endowment Office with an aim to treat all with equal footing. While this work is ongoing, in the current political circumstances it requires from us the virtue of patience. There is a great deal of good will towards us in the Kurdish Government as evidenced by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani celebrating Christmas with us in solidarity this past December, but the politics of land in Iraq is one of great complication. While we must and shall persevere, we must also be patient with our timing, and persistent in our prayers.
We have also opened two medical centers to offer free medical services to the refugee community. The Sacred Heart Sisters from India are running St. Joseph’s clinic, assisted young doctors who are training as volunteers to offer medical services especially to those suffering from chronic disease. The clinic serves some 2000 patients by providing them with medication at a monthly cost of US$ 42,000.00.
At present we also are rehabilitating a building structure to serve as a maternity and child care hospital. Additionally, we have opened a trauma response center to respond to the needs of many who have been scarred deeply by the crisis. You are all familiar with the reality of PTSD as experienced by your returning soldiers. You can imagine how this same type of trauma affects civilians, most especially the children who have seen the horrors of violent persecution and conflict.
But we have not focused on physical and medical needs alone. Based on our conviction that illiteracy and ignorance are the most dangerous long-term enemy that we face here in the Middle East, and urged by a wish to heal the wounds in the hearts and souls of our faithful, we have been working to help our students pursue their studies. Truly, it is difficult for us to see how any meaningful future can continue for us without access to education for our youths. To address this need, through the support of a number of agencies we have been able to build 8 schools to accommodate 8700 students at the high school level.
Of critical importance to us, we have also embarked on building the Catholic University of Erbil, or CUE. With great support from the Italian Bishops Council and the Catholic Bishops of Australia, we are grateful to announce that the first classes at CUE will open this fall. Here in the US, and especially in Philadelphia with its many excellent universities, you are all familiar with the importance of so-called Anchor Institutional for the economic and social well being of communities. For the remaining Christians in Iraq, the importance of CUE goes beyond even this. While intended as an Anchor Institution economically, CUE also represents for us a stand of faith and commitment against the evil of ISIS and others, a means through which we can say to the world that we refuse to be marginalized, that we are children of God and this is our home.
Based upon the best Western standards of learning, and utilizing English as the exclusive language of instruction, the opportunity for an education like CUE will offer would have been impossible in Mosul for both Christians and Muslims alike. And because we must prepare educated and tolerant leaders for the future, we are going to open the doors of the university for Muslims as well so that they may know who we are, what our faith is like, and what is our love for Christ, and His for us who are His sons and daughters. This form of evangelism by example has deep roots in the Christian history of Iraq. For many years in our country it was Catholic Universities and Hospitals which taught and trained leaders from throughout the Middle East. If we are now to survive as a people it is critical that we develop the capacity to reclaim this example. The Catholic University of Erbil stands as an act of faith and hope that testifies to our love for Christ and our Christian commitment to service and love for our fellow man. If, in 100 years our Christian community still survives in Iraq, it may well be that the CUE will prove to have been one of the primary reasons for that survival. I cannot overemphasize its importance to us.
In opening the Catholic University of Erbil, I am asking you now for your support in helping us enroll the first 100 IDP students at an estimated cost of $15,000 per student which will cover full tuition for five years, the first year of which will be a thorough grounding in academic skills and English language.
While CUE will enroll students outside the IDP population as well, it is vital to us that a meaningful percentage of our student body consists of IDPs. These are students from families with no money and little hope. To give them a place at CUE will give hope not only to the students themselves, but to their families as well. We have no doubt that it will make the difference in many cases between whether a family decides to remain in Erbil or flee to uncertainty in another country.
Brothers and Sisters,
You were among the first to extend a life-saving hand to us in our time of peril. You stood at our side, just as our Mother Mary and the Beloved Disciple did at the side of the Crucified, even while much of the world turned away. In the powerful advertisement which you have produced, and which I thank you for, the viewers are told that “the lack of international response has been shocking, and they are asked if we don’t help, who will?” Well my dear brothers and sisters, we know who has helped us, we know who has stood by us, and we know it was you. I am here to say thank you for your charity, thank you for your prayers, thank you for your generous love.
We ask you to continue to be a voice for our suffering, and to work to pressure those concerned to stop this evil which seeks to kill us, and to continue with your support for us to help the Christians of Iraq stay and survive on their ancestral land. May Our Lord bestow his blessing upon you and may our Mother Mary embrace you all in her motherly love.