Iraqi Archbishop Bashar Warda has underscored the “immense” historic importance of Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Iraq, as Christians’ survival in the country hangs in the balance.
The pope’s journey to Iraq “is already filling our communities with immense excitement and pride,” said Warda, the archbishop of Erbil, in a December 12 interview with the National Catholic Register.
This visit to the Christians of Iraq “will be a massive lift for a people who have been marginalized and pushed to the very edge of their own existence after 2,000 years,” the archbishop said.
“The world cannot afford for Christianity to disappear from Iraq and the Middle East,” Warda added. “We have been here for 2,000 years and we need help. His Holiness’ visit will refocus the media’s attention on us and other ancient minorities like the Yazidis who have suffered greatly, and shed light on our plight to survive into the future.”
In August 2019, Warda offered a dire assessment of the situation of Christianity in the Middle East, saying that recurring Islamic purges will inevitably lead to the extinction of Christians.
The Islamic State’s 2014 invasion of Iraq led to the displacement of more than 125,000 Christians from historical homelands, Warda told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, but this tragic event was far from unique.
“This was an exceptional situation, but it’s not an isolated one. It was part of the recurring cycle of violence in the Middle East over more than 1,400 years,” he said, which is leading to the gradual disappearance of Christians from the region.
“With each successive cycle the number of Christians drops, till today we are at the point of extinction,” Warda said. “Argue as you will, but extinction is coming, and then what will anyone say? That we were made extinct by natural disaster, or gentle migration? That the ISIS attacks were unexpected, and that we were taken by surprise? That is what the media will say.”
“Or will the truth emerge after our disappearance: that we were persistently and steadily eliminated over the course of 1,400 years by a belief system which allowed for recurring cycles of violence against Christians, like the Ottoman genocide of 1916-1922,” he declared.
In this week’s interview, however, the archbishop adopted a somewhat more upbeat tone.
The pope’s visit will bring Christians “hope, confidence, and motivation in that they will never be a forgotten people,” he said, and will also refocus media attention on their plight.
This attention is essential, he said, because unemployment among Iraqi Christians remains at 70 percent and since August 2014 most people have been living off their savings, “especially on the Nineveh Plain.”
“We need international support for livelihood programs to help families remain in Iraq, to live dignified lives in being able to house, clothe, educate and feed their families,” he said.
The pontiff’s Iraq visit is planned for March 5-8 and will include stops in Baghdad, the plain of Ur in southern Iraq, the city of Erbil, as well as Mosul and Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plain.