Ten years after Islamic State group’s invasion, church is ‘still alive’ in Iraq, say archbishops

(OSV News) — Ten years after Islamic militants swept over northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, the Christian community there is “still alive,” and working to both rebuild and evangelize, two Eastern Catholic archbishops said.

“We are like an olive tree; no matter what happens to us, they can cut everything, but in the end, we are here, we stay here … and as a church, we do everything to give a sign of hope, to help the (Iraqi Christian) people stay here in this land,” said Archbishop Nizar Semaan of the Syriac Catholic Eparchy of Hadiab-Erbil.

Resilience of Iraqi Christians

“People are so attached to the church (in Iraq),” said Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq. “The church is a reference point for everything.”

The Syriac Catholic and Chaldean Catholic churches, each with their own liturgies and hierarchies, are two of the 23 sui iuris (“of its own rite”) Eastern Catholic churches that along with the Roman Catholic Church comprise the universal Catholic Church.

Iraq, where approximately 98% of the population is Muslim, has been home to Christian communities for some 2,000 years, having been evangelized by St. Thomas the Apostle and his disciples.

Islamic State fighters seized Mosul

Archbishop Semaan and Archbishop Warda spoke during a July 3 webinar hosted by Aid to the Church in Need International. Since 1947, ACN International has worked under the guidance of the pope to provide pastoral and humanitarian assistance to persecuted Catholics. At present, ACN — recognized as a pontifical foundation in 2011 — manages close to 5,600 projects in some 138 countries each year. The organization also stands ready to offer aid in times of natural disaster.

During the webinar, Archbishop Semaan and Archbishop Warda recalled the devastating 2014 wave of attacks against religious minorities launched by Islamic State group fighters, who seized Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plains. Christians and Yazidis (an ancient Indigenous community) fled toward Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, with thousands of Yazidi women and girls sexually enslaved by IS militants.

ACN International executive president Regina Lynch, who pointed out that her organization has supported projects in Iraq since 1972, said she remembered seeing “the shock on people’s faces” during her on-site visit to Erbil after the attacks.

Lynch said her organization has supported some 500 projects over the past few years, providing an estimated “56 million euros” (roughly $60 million) work of support, adding that ACN International will continue to “stand by” the church in Iraq “as long as help is needed.”

Ongoing restoration efforts

Iraq declared victory over IS in 2017, and the Chaldean and Syriac Catholic churches — which provided displaced minorities with critical humanitarian aid throughout the attacks — are part of ongoing efforts to restore the Nineveh Plains Christian communities and the church as a whole in Iraq, amid a historical trend of persecution that has seen the number of Christians in Iraq decline from an estimated 1.4 million in 2003 to about 250,000 today.

Archbishop Warda said that the Israel-Hamas war, now in its eighth month, has left “the whole region … worried,” including Iraqi Christians, who fear that in any expansion of the conflict, “Christians would be targeted or there would be collateral damage.”

Countering extremist ideologies

Archbishop Semaan said that while Iraq has “a bit of stability now … ISIS is not just about (an) army, it’s about ideology,” one whose mentality — which rejects religious diversity — must be countered by cultivating “a moderate education system” that allows for human flourishing amid an atmosphere of “peace … and respect.”

As a second step to helping Christians remain in Iraq, he also stressed the need to develop a national constitution “built on … human beings, not on religion.”

Archbishop Warda, who in 2015 founded the Catholic University in Erbil, noted that with ACN International’s support his archdiocese had set up “eight schools right away” amid the massive displacement from the 2014 IS attacks, saying that providing education was crucial to demonstrating a commitment to human dignity and to stabilizing the Christian community.

He also said that while “there is no doubt” about a shared desire for “coexistence” between Christians and “the majority of the (nation’s) Muslims,” the lack of any apology from Muslim leaders and scholars to IS victims for atrocities committed “in the name of Allah” is troubling, especially since most Iraqi Muslims distance themselves from IS. More needs to be done to ensure that religious tolerance is broadly promoted in Iraqi society, said Archbishop Warda.

Dangers of community isolation

Archbishop Semaan agreed, warning that a trend in recent years for Iraq’s communities to become increasingly isolated from each other is “very dangerous” for the nation’s future.

“As Christians, we want just to be in peace, to live together (and) to share also what we have with other people,” he said. “We don’t want a closed church or a closed Christian community or closed villages. … You have to communicate with the people, with your neighbor.”

Pope Francis’ 2021 “remarkable” visit to Iraq helped to raise the domestic visibility of the nation’s Christians, garnering extensive media coverage and making “a really big difference,” said Archbishop Warda.

Trauma from the 2014 attacks remains an issue, said the archbishops, who added the strong sense of family and communal bonds among Iraqi Christians has helped to heal some of those wounds.

Catechesis and faith formation, particularly among the youth, can sustain that ongoing process and rebuild survivors’ sense of trust, they said.

The Church as a lifeline

“A strong faith will help you to forgive later on, and to just see … that what was meant to really destroy you is just strengthening you,” said Archbishop Warda.

Both archbishops said they find themselves fielding calls and requests from their communities at all hours, as the faithful look to the church for guidance in virtually every area of life.

“The faith here is everything,” said Archbishop Warda. “The church and the community here is a family.”

With his phone ringing nonstop and “lots of youth (dedicating) themselves to the service of the church,” Archbishop Semaan said the vibrancy of the Catholic community in Iraq “makes us feel as bishops that we are alive.”

“You have to go out, and open your doors to everyone,” he said.

This post Ten years after Islamic State group’s invasion, church is ‘still alive’ in Iraq, say archbishops appeared on Our Sunday Visitor.

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