Washington, D.C. - Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq gathered with Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus and others at the National Press Club in D.C. Tuesday to talk about the needs and current state of Christians trying to rebuild in Iraq in the wake of ISIS.
Archbishop Warda thanked the Trump administration for Vice President Mike Pence’s remarks in October, promising to protect the Christians in the Middle East and redirect U.S. aid funds directly to the persecuted communities rather than through the United Nations.
“It makes an important shift because it showed that the American government considers the situation of those who suffer this persecution at the hands of ISIS to be a priority,” Archbishop Warda said.
He went on to recount how his diocese of Erbil became the safe haven for aid that it is today for roughly 15,000 displaced families.
“In 2014, we were not a humanitarian aid agency and we did not intend to be one but circumstances changed our plans and we have learned quickly,” he said. “Soon we were providing a level of care superior to that of many of the large camps. When it comes to the Christian communities of Iraq, no one has more experience or knows their needs better than those of us who have cared for them for these three years and a half.”
The archbishop also spoke of the plight of the refugees saying, “it was really a horrible experience, a very terrifying experience for the Christians to be asked to convert to Islam or paying taxation jizya or leave and they decided to leave and they came with nothing to our churches and parishes.”
“They had to learn how to live as refugees inside the country and it was really a difficult time for them and for us at the same time, to learn from them how to care for them,” he added. “It took some time but they never lost hope that one day they would be able to go back again. Unfortunately it was really sad when they went back everything was destroyed.”
“Everyone is really looking for the help that would provide them the needed support so they could go back to their normal life,” he emphasized.
Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson said his group, which has been one of the most active U.S.-based groups supporting displaced Christians in the region, would be donating $1 million to the archdiocese of Erbil to show their support and solidarity during the Christmas season.
The Knights of Columbus have raised over $17 million total in the last three years to help Christians displaced by ISIS, most recently they donated $2 million in August to rebuild the Christian town of Teleskov.
“The new normal cannot be extinction which is what we’re now facing,” Anderson said of Christians in the Middle East. “These communities go back, remember in Damascus the Christian community baptized St. Paul. These are communities that have existed 600 years before Islam. They have every right to exist and the most important thing we can do as American Christians and as Americans committed to human rights is to say these indigenous communities that have existed for almost two thousand years have every right to continue.”
“The Christian community in the Middle East and Iraq has no political power, has no military power but is a voice of dialogue, is a voice of peace, is a voice of reconciliation,” he added. “I think the lesson that we can learn in the West is a community under those circumstances still is able to demonstrate a spiritual and moral courage to persist in their belief, to persist in their conscience, and to do the best they can to raise their families in this kind of an ethos.”
Archbishop Warda talked about the special significance the Christmas season has for the Christians in Iraq.
"Christmas is really very special, a celebration for the Christians of Iraq, especially when we meditate on the Holy Family who were also displaced on the roads to Bethlehem, to Egypt,” he said. “We know that despite all of these difficulties that the holy family and we also, Christian families, we do believe that the providences of God have not let us down. We have discovered the hands of mercy via the solidarity which has been shown to us over the last three years and a half and has made us live with difficulties but with dignity."