Religion

Do You Think about Iraq?

Iraqi Christians attend a Christmas Eve mass at the Grand Immaculate Church in al-Hamdaniya, near Mosul, December 24, 2018. (Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters)
We owe it to the people there to do so.

Impeachment is on the brain and, it would seem, not much else. Our limited attention spans don’t seem to allow it. But we had better make room for the Iraqi people. At the start of the month, Chaldean archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil visited New York and spoke at the United Nations Security Council about the situation in his native Iraq. Warda has been housing and caring for people, primarily Christian, who fled ISIS in Mosul in 2014. He’s been working to secure some semblance of a future for them and has established a Catholic university there. (While in the United States this month he also announced a partnership program with the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.)

In his speech on December 3, he said, “At stake is whether Iraq will finally emerge from the trauma of Saddam and the past 16 years to become a legitimate, independent and functioning country, or whether it will become a permanently lawless region, open to proxy wars between other countries and movements, and a servant to the sectarian demands of those outside Iraq.”

Warda was hopeful: “If the protest movement is successful in creating a new government, with a new, civil constitution, respecting the diversity of its religions and cultures, one not based in Sharia but instead based upon the fundamental concepts of freedom for all, freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written by this organization where we all sit today, then a time of hope can still exist for the long-suffering Iraqi people. Despite everything, the Iraqi people love their country, and they want it back.”

And the archbishop was also solemn. He said that if the protesters were not successful — “if the international community stands by and allows the murder of innocents to continue” — Iraq will probably fall into civil war, scattering millions of young religious minorities from Iraq. “In the crisis and the genocide of 2014, over 4 million Iraqis, Muslims, Yazidis, and Christians fled to the Kurdistan region, seeking refuge from the evil of ISIS, but still remained within the country,” he noted. “In another major conflict, we are likely to see the people flee from Iraq for good. We are indeed at perhaps the last chance for our country.”

His speech — and, really, plea to the international community but to the West in a particular way — was for support, an entreaty not to look away, not to be reckless in interventions, as we have been elsewhere and certainly there, in Iraq. Warda will tell you, as he intimated, that Christians and other religious minorities are not better because of the fall of Saddam Hussein, evil tyrant though he may have been. Warda is no apologist for Saddam; he simply explains how things have played out. The archbishop doesn’t explicitly ask us to do penance, and yet it doesn’t seem like that would be inappropriate. Serious attention to his assessment, at the very least, is overdue.

I’m told that on account of his words at the United Nations, protesters have been seen with a photograph of him, a hero of their cause, on signs in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.

When I had a long interview with Archbishop Warda in Toronto in 2016, he talked a little about the U.S. interventions in Iraq. (Warda was in Canada for the annual Knights of Columbus convention; the Knights were one of the private organizations coming to the aid of the Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities, to help fight for a future for the people in his care.) He was mad about it. Invading, he said, “was a big mistake,” “but it was a tragedy when they left.”

Democracy wasn’t going to work in Iraq. There were too many complicating factors, including a deep-seated corruption. He has nothing against the concept, he just knows the brutal reality in the region too well. He understands the dynamics of the religious majority vis-à-vis the minorities. He also, just about every time I’ve heard a word from his mouth, talks about the importance of protecting religious freedom — also, about how urgent it is to have Christians in Iraq and the region. First of all, they belong there: They have been there since about the advent of Christianity. That’s only right and just, but also: They bring to the region a mercy that is absolutely needed — it’s almost as if the land from its depths is crying for it! Christians at their best embody the mercy of Jesus in the gospels: willing to be crucified, that greatest act of love, which led to the Resurrection, that unprecedented act of hope that changed the course of history and human lives. It is good to have people of hope among you, wherever you are, but in a particular way in Iraq, and now, throughout the region.

The Washington Post just ran an alarming series about our last 18 years of intervention in Afghanistan. We’ve made things worse, and that’s just the beginning of the story. The news should, among other things, make us take Warda’s words extra seriously. We must consider what we’ve done and stop looking away from the consequences of our policies, and from the hopes of a people.

About the ongoing protests in Iraq, Warda says: “The young Christians of Iraq have been participants in these protests every day. They have been there because the protests have given them hope for a future, a future in which they belong as equal and contributing Iraqi citizens.”

Warda points out that, although over 400 protesters have been killed, those protesting today remain nonviolent. About their goals and the urgency of their cause, he added: “Along with the millions of other marginalized Iraqis, they look now to the international community for your action and support. Iraq, the country which has so often been harmed, now looks to you all for help. We believe we have a future, and we ask you not to turn away from us now.” That should rattle and convict us. Their cause is just and we have a responsibility to support them. Whatever is going on domestically, let’s not look away. We have a responsibility.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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