A few nights from now the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Matti Warda, will celebrate Midnight Mass with his Iraqi flock. The faithful will walk into their cathedral through a passageway modeled on the Ishtar Gate that was the main entryway into ancient Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar II 2,600 years ago. Once inside they will celebrate their Christmas liturgy in a dialect of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.
This year, Erbil is a microcosm of the hopes and anxieties of Iraq’s dwindling Christian population. Once a small outpost about 50 miles east of Mosul, the city in recent years has become a sanctuary for Christians fleeing Islamic State. Archbishop Warda says the fears Mary and Joseph expressed for the safety of Jesus resonate with the fragile Iraqi Christian community, whose number has fallen from 1.4 million before the 2003 U.S. invasion to roughly 200,000 today.
“In our own land we Christians are exiles,” he says at a meeting with Journal editors. “We relate to the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.”
The archbishop spoke these words during a recent visit to the United States to plead for assistance. Though he won’t say it, Christians and other Iraqi minorities were abandoned under Barack Obama. On the way out, it’s true, Secretary of State John Kerry did call what was happening to them “genocide,” but insiders say it was very reluctantly and only after a long campaign of pressure.
Iraqi Christians pride themselves on being among the world’s oldest Christian communities. The three largest denominations are Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox. Their unease points to the fundamental challenge for Muslim-majority Middle Eastern nations in the 21st century: Can they make room for their minority populations, allowing them to live in peace and dignity?
The past few years have been brutal. When Islamic State went on a rampage aimed at erasing Christianity from Iraq, Christian homes were marked with the Arabic letter “N,” a derogatory shorthand for Nazarene, meaning a follower of Jesus. The practical choices before these Iraqi Christians were stark: flee, convert to Islam, or die. Young Christian women, like Yazidi women, were sold into sexual slavery.
The great difference this year is the defeat of ISIS announced by the Iraqi government earlier this month. The news is an understandable source of joy for Christians. But though the beheadings, immolations and even crucifixions favored by the Sunni Islamic State may be more sensational, the colonialism of Shia Iran is also squeezing Iraq’s Christian communities today. Many Iraqis now see their country as essentially an Iranian province.
Making the situation even more precarious for Christians is Baghdad’s continuing dispute with the Kurds, who want traditionally Christian areas such as Erbil to be incorporated into an independent Kurdistan. So even where Christians aren’t the target, they are often caught in the crossfire.
Archbishop Warda is looking for the help his nation’s desperate Christian minority needs to rebuild its homes, churches, businesses and communities. That’s why he and other Iraqi Christians were cheered by Mike Pence’s October announcement that Uncle Sam would deliver more U.S. aid through religious associations on the ground rather than relying simply on unaccountable international organizations such as the U.N.
The archbishop highlights two groups he says have shown themselves adept at getting aid into the hands of those who need it—the Knights of Columbus (which takes no government money) and Aid to the Church in Need. At a Dec. 4 White House meeting, Archbishop Warda gave Mr. Pence a crucifix that had been broken by Islamic State during its occupation of Karamles, a Christian village outside Mosul.
The long-term future of Iraqi Christians remains uncertain. After George W. Bush upended Iraq by deposing Saddam Hussein, and Barack Obama left prematurely, Iraqis today want to know: Is the U.S. in or out?
For Iraq’s minorities, recent history does not incline to optimism. The Jews were pushed out in the 1940s, and the Mandeans largely fled to Jordan and Syria after the U.S. invasion. The question is whether the same dark fate awaits the remaining Yazidis and Christians.
But Christmas is the season of hope, and the archbishop says he detects an encouraging change in his Muslim friends and neighbors: They know there is a problem within Islam and are willing to discuss it. More encouraging still, he says, has been the steadfastness of his fellow Iraqi Christians, who in the face of unspeakable threats proved willing to risk all they had, including their lives, rather than renounce their faith.
“There will always be Christians in Iraq,” he smiles. “All we wish is to be welcome in our own home.”
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Appeared in the December 19, 2017, print edition.
Source: Merry Christmas, Iraq – WSJ