Bashar Matti Warda, the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, has had more firsthand experience than most with the atrocities of the Islamic State, a group that he describes as “a cancer” in the Middle East.
Archbishop Warda runs one of the dioceses that has suffered most deeply from ISIS’ fanatical onslaught, a region that has also been overrun with Christian refugees in recent months due to the relentless persecution of Islamic State militants.
In August 2014, some 125,000 refugees arrived in Erbil, fleeing to escape persecution by the Islamic State, and many sought sanctuary at St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
Warda has been working with leaders from the Syrian Catholic and Orthodox churches to furnish shelter for the refugees, first in his own cathedral and its grounds and afterward in camps.
The Archbishop spoke in Madrid this past weekend at an international congress on religious liberty titled “We are all Nazarenes #WeAreN2015.”
Despite its elevated brutality, the Islamic State is not really that new, the archbishop said. Radical Islam has always existed alongside more moderate expressions.
Warda said that “the fanatical mindset of ISIS is not a new phenomenon, it has always been present but now has increased because of the chaos that reigns in the country.”
He stressed as well that the Islamic state is not a phenomenon that affects only the Middle East, but rather is “a global phenomenon, because there are Europeans and Americans who are in their ranks.”
Among his many endeavors to combat Islamic jihadism any way he can, the archbishop has placed special emphasis on education.
“In 2004 my parish was the first to be hit [by] a car bomb,” he said. “People asked me what we could do, and some proposed putting up a concrete wall. But I said no, that what we had to do was build a school, and we did.”
The school actually has a majority of Muslim students, and in this way Warda is able to directly influence the mindset of the Muslim young.
The bishop said that the school educates the students in the values of acceptance, respect, love and openness. “That’s what they lack and what Christians and especially what Catholics can contribute,” he said.
“Christians have a mission to bring the message of giving freely what they have received from God as a gift or grace, also in this troubled part of the world,” he said.
Another thing that troubles the archbishop is the loss of so many Christians who are displaced from their homes and then simply settle elsewhere, never returning.
The archbishop said that he is aware that life in Iraq for Christians is not easy, and this presents the risk of running out of the historic Christian presence in the area. “That’s why we offer a possibility for the families [to] think twice before leaving,” he said. “We know that life in Iraq is not easy, especially when they live crammed into a room in a house or in a caravan and we have been left with nothing.”
“I cannot tell them to stay, but I can tell them that emigration is not the only option,” he said.
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