Archbishop Bashar Warda: the man fighting to save Iraq's Christians

Their numbers are plummeting, and there may soon be none left in the country. Archbishop Warda is fighting to make sure that sectarian conflict doesn’t force them out altogether

May 26, 2017
Archbishop Warda ©Aid to the Church in Need
Archbishop Warda ©Aid to the Church in Need

Down the quiet, polished corridor of a central London hotel, a Middle Eastern archbishop, clad in his black cassock, strides with a purposeful swoosh. Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil is here to start raising a staggering $262m, so that Iraqis displaced by Islamic State three years ago can return home and repair their homes.

We speak less than a mile from where MPs approved the invasion of his country in 2003. When we met in 2011, Archbishop Warda told me flatly that Tony Blair had done “much harm to Iraq.” This time, Warda, whose archdiocese in Iraq’s Kurdish region has been co-ordinating aid for around 95,000 displaced Iraqis, wants to talk about the future, and in particular a sort of “Marshall Plan” for the northern Nineveh Plains region.

“We’d like as many benefactors as we can; states, organisations—because this will speed the whole process… and show the [Iraqi] Christians we are serious,” the archbishop told Prospect. The appeal is aimed at Europeans and Americans, he adds, and during his visit to London he met officials from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, as well as the Prince of Wales, a vocal supporter of Middle Eastern Christians.

The multi-million dollar figure is how much the ecumenical Nineveh Reconstruction Committee (NRC) has calculated it will cost to renovate 13,000 homes in nine majority-Christian villages in the Nineveh Plains region around Mosul, an area Archbishop Warda describes as “secure but like a ghost town.”

Iraqi Christians’ plummeting numbers—from 1.4m in 1987 to between 230,000 and 275,000 now, raising fears that they could disappear from Iraq in the next few years—have forced collaboration between the hitherto rivalrous Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean Catholic Churches.

Why is the reconstruction not the work of the Iraqi government? Warda says Baghdad has pledged $1,000 per house, but he appears to have low expectations. “We need works, not words,” he insists. “From what I see, Iraqi politicians are working for different agendas—Turkey, the Gulf, Iran.”

According to the UN refugee agency, almost 1.8m Iraqis and Syrians have taken refuge in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and “communities, authorities and infrastructure are at breaking point.” However, clergy say the Christians have preferred to avoid the UN-run camps out of fear of encountering IS sympathisers.

The archdiocese’s temporary charges—mainly Christians, but some Yezidis, Sunnis, Shabaks and Mandaeans—arrived in Erbil in 2014, many on foot, after IS’ strike on Mosul and the Nineveh Plains. Some who fled have continued to Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon to apply for asylum outside the Middle East. But most have stayed, waiting to see whether a return to their old lives is possible.

The further from the city of Mosul, the better condition the village is in, Warda says. In the village of Telskuf, which is “fairly secure” and where the NRC has assessed the level of damage as “about 25 to 30 per cent,” some 500 families have already returned. The NRC is not against rebuilding the homes of Yezidi neighbours, he says, but is keen to avoid accusations of proselytism.

He acknowledges that mines and bombs may need clearing in the Nineveh Plains towns and villages, and that fresh attacks are possible. In the town of Qaraqosh, “You would find four to five groups—the Iraqi army, the Shia mobilised forces, the Babylonian [Christian] forces, NPU,” he said, referring to the mainly ethnic Assyrian Nineveh Plains Popular Units. “Certain families are accusing these forces of being the new looters of houses.”

In Mosul itself, where IS is holding out in the Old City and hundreds of thousands of civilians remain trapped, the return of Christian residents will be slower, he said. Much of the liberated areas are in ruins. Some Christians have visited briefly from Kurdistan to check on the state of their homes; bishops have reported returning to find churches “burnt, or destroyed, or… a skeleton.” In two churches bishops found “instruments of torture,” which, he added, was consistent with the videos IS uploaded to Youtube.

The archbishop warned that the defeat of IS would not guarantee an end to the violence. “We expect some Sunni-Sunni issues,” he said. “Last week one of the Sunni families [in Erbil] reported that they have received threats from Sunni in Mosul that if they will come back, they will be killed, because they ‘betrayed’ them and left Mosul.”

Concerned by an ongoing lack of security, bishops from the two Syriac Churches called for an internationally protected enclave for minorities, an idea that has appeared and reappeared in the years since the invasion. But Archbishop Warda said the idea was unrealistic, “against the sovereignty of Iraq,” and would only increase the vulnerability of its inhabitants. Iraqi Christians should work with all their neighbours, be they Sunni, Shia, Shabak or Yezidi, he stressed.

Yet he favours some form of special protection. He does not argue that the Christians are in greatest material need among Iraq’s vast displaced population, but that for them this crisis is existential. Christians and Yezidis “are so small in number that we cannot survive without political protection, social protection,” he says. Warda refutes the notion that to prioritise minorities is to aggravate the divisions that contributed to the country’s disintegration. “When you help minorities, you help the country; you keep the diversity there… You are strengthening communities who were always bridge-builders.”