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Good News for Iraq’s Christians: More Autonomy, Less Dhimmitude

As Erbil Christians finally get to govern themselves, Chaldean Catholic archbishop Bashar Warda explains to CT how ISIS freed Christians from the centuries-old understanding that they are second-class citizens.
Good News for Iraq’s Christians: More Autonomy, Less Dhimmitude
Image: Courtesy of Bashar Warda
Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda stands in front of the Catholic University of Erbil, located in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital city's Ankawa district.

This week, the Christian enclave of Ankawa in Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, was designated by the autonomous region’s prime minister as an official district with administrative autonomy. Starting next week, Christians will directly elect their own mayor and be in charge of security, among other matters.

Prime Minister Masrour Barzani called Ankawa a home for “religious and social coexistence, and a place for peace.”

Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, called it an “important” and “strategic” decision.

“Our confidence in the future of Kurdistan makes us encourage Christians not only to stay,” he told Kurdistan 24, “but also to invest in this region.”

Ordained a priest in 1993, Warda was consecrated in his current position in 2010. With Iraq’s hemorrhaging of Christians since the 2003 US invasion, Warda’s bishopric in the autonomous Kurdish region soon became a providential band-aid.

Beginning in 2014, ISIS drove Christians from Mosul and their traditional homeland in the Nineveh Plains, and thousands took refuge in Erbil and other cities in the secure northeast. From 1.5 million Christians in 2003, the Chaldean Catholic church now estimates a population of fewer than 275,000 Christians.

Warda has long been investing to turn the tide.

In 2015, he established the Catholic University of Erbil, and has coordinated relief aid from governments and charities alike. The situation stabilized following ISIS’s defeat in 2017.

But freedom does not come from politics alone. Two years ago, Christians endorsed widespread popular uprisings against the political class. Violently suppressed, the movement’s main celebrated achievement was early elections under a new law designed to promote better local and small-party representation.

Polls open on October 10, and a quota gives Christians five of 329 seats in parliament. However, Warda’s Baghdad-based patriarch has called for a Christian boycott, fearing fraud.

Warda wants a Christian revival. Buoyed by the March visit of Pope Francis, he believes that ISIS broke the fundamental religious and cultural underpinnings of Islamic superiority. Christians no longer are seen as second-class citizens.

In an interview on the sidelines of the IRF Summit convened in Washington in July, Warda told CT about his welcome of missionaries, the Catholic way of witnessing to Muslims, and whether a revived Christian influence in Iraq will lead to future church growth.

Since the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, what challenge has been hardest for the church?

With all the displaced people, images of scattered tents immediately come to mind. But the hard part is not to provide them with food, sanitation, or medical supplies. This is not easy, but it is obvious.

The hard part is to restore their dignity. They understand that ISIS is a criminal gang. And they can bear the wounds of the innocent, knowing they had nothing to do with this dispute.

But their question is “Why?” yet also “What now?”

Men are the providers for the family. Sitting around doing nothing, they tell me, “Bishop, we don’t want money; we want a job. I want to deserve my food.”

Suppose there is aid sufficient to rebuild homes, churches, and schools and even to provide jobs. You have said that this is not enough. It does not establish the basis of citizenship and pluralism.

That is true. But without homes, churches, schools, and jobs, the people will leave the country. And then there are no citizens left.

With a rebuilt community, you can go to the government to speak about the constitution, defending the people’s full rights under the law. There is a link. First have the community; then talk about implementing ideals.

Before ISIS, when the community was stable, were you able to seek your rights?

For 1,400 years there was a sort of social contract: Islam is the religion of the nation, and you are the People of the Book. But know that Islam is the honorable religion of God, which means you are second.

In the Quran it says there is no equality between those who believe in Islam and those who do not. Yes, it says they should consult you. But we are the people who are to be “protected.” That means we are always under them and have to pay a social and financial price. There is no jizia [a tax paid to be a protected community under Islamic rule] anymore, but the social price remains and makes you a second-class citizen.

What does this mean in the modern era?

In Catholic marriages, sometimes there are problems. Rather than deal with the issues, some spouses take the easy way out, convert to Islam, and get an immediate divorce. They don’t believe in Islam, but the constitution gives them the right to take the children.

What about the mother? What if one of the children is not willing? No, no, no, we are told, Islam is the honorable religion.

It also means you cannot evangelize. If there is a Muslim coming to your church, asking about Christ, you must tell him, “No, go away; you are a Muslim. I’m not allowed.”

Now after ISIS, I tell Muslims, “No, you’ve broken the social contract.”

For anyone coming to the church asking about Christianity now, we are there. We communicate, provide literature. Of course, I leave the decision to them. But my duty is to inform them and give them a reason for the hope that is in us.

Has the rest of the Christian community in Iraq realized the contract is broken? Can they act accordingly?

It depends on where they are. In Baghdad and Basra, it is a different story. But in the governorates affected by ISIS, we can tell them, “We fulfilled our obligations as Christians. What about you?”

In your opinion, is the social contract broken in Baghdad and Basra?

No. But their lives and challenges are different. They live amid political disputes between parties. It leads to a certain chaos with security, and some act out against the weaker party. There was some direct violence against churches and priests because they were Christians, but in recent years it is more about criminality.

But the culture of Islamic superiority still exists?

Yes, of course. Everywhere. In the entire Middle East.

Do Muslims in Kurdistan accept that the old social contract is broken?

When I speak with imams, they say that ISIS does not represent Islam. Okay, but you haven’t written any apology letter to the victims. They say, “But we hosted you. We welcomed you.” Yes, but write it down: We are sorry for what they did in the name of Allah. This helps history avoid being repeated.

What would happen if they could accept your understanding of this new reality?

They would dig deep in their Islamic history books to discover where it speaks about the dignity of the human being, simply because he is created by God. And then it would change the way they speak. They would use the Quran to demonstrate mutual respect.

It would change religious discourse, but what about ordinary Muslims?

They would know us better.

When I asked authorities for Pope Francis’ mass to be in an outdoor setting, one reason was to get Muslims to see what Christians do in church. They would then realize [Christians] are not there to dance and drink wine. [Christians] are quiet; they celebrate; they chant beautiful music.

I asked the head of the choir to choose Muslim musicians. There were 10 of them. It is a way of approaching the other to say, “This is who I am. Listen to me. Watch me.” Then they can see our adoration and hear over and over that we believe in one God.

Did the visit of Pope Francis change their mentality?

Our young people prepared the stadium, working 16 hours a day for three weeks. When the event was over, the media showed pictures of the stadium and that it was clean. This was not part of our responsibility; trash collection belonged to the government. But the message with the picture said, “These people deserve our respect.”

This meant a lot.

As you try to live out the fact that the social contract is broken and to spread this idea among other Christians, will there be consequences?

We have to have the passion and the patience for dialogue.

I go to meet with extremist Muslims, people who would not expect me at the gates of their homes. I tell them, “Here I am. Are you willing to accept me?”

They haven’t had straightforward answers. They reply, “Islam is the honorable religion of God.” Okay, I respect that, but let’s talk about how to work together.

What are you doing to prepare the Christians in your bishopric to live in this new reality?

Our region receives displaced Christians because it is safe. This has helped me practice my faith freely, and Kurdistan is quite supportive. We are working alongside the government for sustainability of the Christian community.

We have four schools, a university, and a hospital. These provide 460 jobs. It is through education and healthcare that we can become influential. And I want to provide the best services in Iraq.

Phase one was to create the structures. Phase two is to work with universities in America to form an alliance. The Franciscan University of Steubenville has responded. So has the University of Dallas. We are also talking with Baylor University.

It is a long journey. But thank God, the response of Christians in America and around the world has been encouraging. They believe in what we are doing.

Do you welcome missionaries to your witness in the region?

Oh yes. As long as they respect that this is not a land of converting Christians to a new church.

Unfortunately, some come and tell us, “We will tell you about Christ because you don’t know Christ.” How can they say this? They should say, “We would like to share faith with you.”

Yes, [they] are welcome. We have some working as teachers and as professors in the university.

The church here is weak in terms of numbers. We don’t want to divide it further. There are nine churches, and over 15 evangelical groups have come to Iraq in the last three decades. It should be about cooperation and collaboration. Let me be enriched by your faith experience, and I by yours. Missionaries should help me maintain my faith, not weaken me.

If any of my people tell me, “Bishop, I am alive in this new community,” I say, “God bless you.” But let them say so openly. I am not their judge.

Some Western missionaries work among Muslims. How do you advise them to join you in your witness, to help and not to harm?

They must know that evangelization is not permitted. I’m concerned first about their safety. They must have wisdom. It was unfortunate for us to [once] find Bibles in the trash. It is not about distributing the Bible but about whom you offer it to. The Bible is a treasure.

You have said previously that with the social contract broken, Iraqi Christians now have a role of witness—to be missionaries in their society. How can the foreign missionary join with you well?

Come and be with the local church, ready to help.

You will be a teacher in one of our schools—with Muslims. Your example and dedication will draw them to know more about you and about your faith. When they ask you why you left America, you can tell them, “I am a Christian. I believe in Jesus Christ, my Savior. He pushed me to come and help you, even though you are not Christians.” These seeds will grow, and they will want to know more and more.

Come gently, as St. Paul did. Be faithful. Whenever there was a chance to speak about Christ, he would do so, with full respect.

What is the church doing now with Muslims who are interested in Christianity?

We have literature about who we are. I give this to them, they read it, and they come back with more questions.

Is it possible for them to join you and become a Christian?

No, we tell them, “This would endanger your life. You can’t do that.” Then they insist. We work with them for six months, maybe a year, and they still insist. Who are we to tell them no? So then, I baptize them.

I tell my priests, “If you have these cases, God bless you, go forward.”

But I am always clear with inquirers: This is not going to change your religious identity before the law, on your ID card. It may put you in trouble with your family and your tribe. But if you are ready to bear the consequences, God bless you.

Are they able to stay in Iraq?

Some of them stay secretly. Some have decided to leave.

Your colleague Bishop Bawai Soro has researched and found that since Islam came to Iraq, the number of Christians has never increased. Faith is not a competition, but is this something that can change? Might Christians not only recover from ISIS but also grow? Or is it simply your destiny to accept a shrinking community, where all you can do is slow the pace and aim for stability?

I will start with the last one. Stabilize, and lead to a good future. This is not just realistic but practical. I am not a man of wishing but of hope. Hope means that if we work hard together, we can make it. With God’s grace, I think we can preserve a good number of Christians and, among them, influential leaders.

There is hope in these words. But is there also a sense of sadness?

Let’s face it: Committed Christians are shrinking around the world.

We are the salt of the earth. Just be a candle. Christians are not destined to be the most powerful community, only the most influential. It is encouraging to live among a Christian majority, of course. But it also comes with challenges.

Let’s stay with the easier scenario God has given us here in Iraq.

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]

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