It would be possible for the Pope to visit Iraq, Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil has said.
In an interview with the charity Aid to the Church in Need, he said: “I spoke to His Holiness in person last November and told him that we would be delighted to welcome him in Erbil. He replied that he would be pleased to come, but that his staff would not allow him to at present.”
Archbishop Warda emphasised that he himself believed such a visit was possible. “But it will take a little time,” he added.
The archbishop, in whose diocese tens of thousands of Christian refugees have sought refuge, estimated that it will still be several months, however, before the areas occupied by ISIS in Mosul and on the nearby Niniveh Plain can be liberated. He said: “Should signs emerge of the recapture of the Christian towns and villages occupied by ISIS, this would fill the Christian refugees with great hope and encourage them to stay.”
Last summer, more than 125,000 Christians fled from Mosul and the Niniveh Plain ahead of the advancing Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist militia. The archbishop said: “Our people feel neglected. They have the impression that there are regions with greater strategic importance for the Iraqi government than the Niniveh Plain.”
However, the archbishop said he thought there would be further difficulties if the occupied territories were freed. “If the government were to want to free Mosul first, many Muslims would flee from the city to the countryside because of the fighting. And where would they go? Probably to the currently abandoned Christian settlements near Mosul. This could subsequently give rise to difficulties. If the government were to begin its operation in the Niniveh Plain, however, the Christian settlements could be seriously affected by the fighting.”
Archbishop Warda said he was sceptical as to whether the international protection of Christian territories close to Mosul frequently demanded by Christians could be realised once they had been liberated. He said: “It would be important, but many countries will think twice before sending troops into this tricky situation. It would need to be preceded by a reconciliation process in the affected areas so that the Muslim neighbours did not see an international force of this kind as a hostile presence. I therefore believe it more likely that we will rather go in the direction of a national guard.”
According to Archbishop Warda, the national guard currently being considered relies on local people, but is integrated in the Iraqi defence system. The archbishop rejected the idea of a militia formed according to religious criteria which, he said, would only complicate matters. “We as a Church have made it clear from the outset that we are against Christian militia. We wish our young people, if so inclined, to join the Kurdish or Iraqi forces.”
The archbishop also described the condemnations of ISIS’s deeds by Muslim clerics as inadequate. “So far, we have not heard any genuine condemnations which reject these deeds because they are directed against people as such, be they Muslims, Christians or Jews. For the most part, Sunni imams denounce the crimes only because they damage the reputation of Islam. But what about the victims? My impression, when I hear speeches by Sunni clerics, is that, if ISIS’s deeds were done away from media attention, they would be all right.”
Naturally, he said, there were voices in the Islamic world calling for a new interpretation of Islam. “However, I believe that we are just at the beginning here,” he explained.
A major political effort and social redress are necessary in Archbishop Warda’s eyes in order to achieve an internal reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. He said: “The wounds are deep. There have been no fewer than 25,000 unidentifiable victims on both sides since 2003. There was a desire to disfigure those on the other side so badly that the final act of love by their families – a worthy burial – was no longer possible. This shows how deep the hatred went and still goes.”
An internal reconciliation is therefore conditional on the goodwill of Iraq’s politicians, as well as of the regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia which, according to the archbishop, have great influence on Iraqi politics. “But we are not there yet,” he stated. “Sooner or later, however, the situation will have to change. After so much violence and with 1.8 million internally displaced persons, a moment of exhaustion will come when people will say, enough is enough.”
Archbishop Warda said he detected major progress as regards the humanitarian situation of the Christian refugees. “Thank God, we were able to do a lot thanks to the help of our international partners. Aid to the Church in Need is our biggest and most important partner in this crisis. We are currently concentrating primarily on three things: housing, schools and healthcare.”
The housing programmes in particular, which allowed people to move from tents and residential containers into rented houses, had had a very positive effect, the archbishop said. “The people are drawing new hope. Some are even buying furniture. It is important that people again get the feeling of helping themselves.”
Archbishop Warda appealed to Christians in the west to pray for the people in Iraq and the Middle East, saying: “We believe in the power of prayer.”
Alongside the necessary material support, however, it was also crucial that aid organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need drew the attention of western politicians and the media to the situation in the region, the archbishop said. “People must see that an ancient community is in the process of disappearing,” he said.
But it was important, the archbishop said, that Christians remain in Iraq. “We have what is missing here: a culture of dialogue, of peace, of love and reconciliation. Through our schools and our educational institutions, we can help to change the country. Many Iraqi politicians have told me that Iraq would not be the same without the Christians.”