Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq, is a man of hope, humility, courage, and defiance. Christians will stay in the Middle East, like it or not, he says. Even if there is little or no room for them among Muslim leaders in the region. Love of God is what motivates him, of course. But also principle: First, it’s been their home for 2,000 years. Second, it is their responsibility to stay. Some, of course, have had to make the heart-wrenching decision to leave for the sake of their families’ future flourishing, with so much uncertainty (at best) there. Think for a moment what an unsettling year this has been in the U.S., with the shutdowns. They have COVID-19 there, too, by the way. On top of that, their lives have been subject to genocide in recent years. So give thanks for the blessings we still have, even with the challenges. To grow in gratitude in perspective, there’s nothing like paying attention to those whose existence is constantly threatened.
As we are drawn out of our current woes and fears and distractions, “chilling” doesn’t begin to describe listening to Warda talking about the existential threat to his people. Speaking virtually from Erbil, Iraq, he delivered his message to a fifth annual New York–based conference on international religious liberty, sponsored by the Anglosphere Society, among others. The title of the conference was “Act in Time: Protecting Imperiled Christians in Ancient and Other Lands.” In the years since the so-called Islamic State forced an exile to Kurdistan, Warda has labored to minister, to give families healing and confidence that there is a future for them in their homeland. But the fact of the matter is that there won’t be if more of the world doesn’t pay attention. There were over a million Christians in Iraq before our war there in 2003, and there are now fewer than 150,000.
“The sand has nearly run out in the hourglass that is Christianity in Iraq” is how Stephen M. Rasche, vice chancellor of the Catholic University in Erbil, describes the situation in The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East.
Many of the other Christian communities of the Middle East are not far behind. And although there is still time left for small remnants of hope, if they are not acted upon now, this history of two thousand years will see its final chapters in our lifetimes — much of it perhaps within this coming decade. But if any responsible, effective plan of action is to have purpose, it will need to be based in new thinking, which admits the reality of the situation, unclouded by Western aspirational paradigms, and the knee-jerk tendency to resort to claims of phobias and bias, which serve only to obscure the truth.
Rasche is an American, who, with our late friend Andrew Walther, established the Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity. On the day Andrew was put on a ventilator, he was on the phone with Steve, working on edits to some witness testimony about the endangered life of a Christian in Nigeria. As one of the speakers at the conference put it, eleven Nigerians were beheaded last year on Christmas Day. Do we know? Do we care? Do we do anything about it? Andrew and Steve were supposed to go to Nigeria this spring, but the coronavirus did that trip in. I always thought the possibility was high that Andrew might be martyred on one of these journeys. Maybe God took him home on All Saints’ Day this year, from leukemia, to prevent that and to give him an even stronger intercessory power, from Heaven, for these impossibly daunting situations.
Andrew was an incredible friend to the persecuted, helping with everything from meeting basic needs to working to save villages and doing diplomatic work. I do believe that the reason he died was that we would look to his life and work and pick up the cause. We have a lot of challenges in our lives, but I believe that God wants us to give our hearts to these people who are hated where they are and yet must remain not only because it is right and just, but because they are leaven. The most shocking and yet unsurprising thing that Archbishop Warda said to us at this conference that was dedicated to Andrew Walther was that he feared as he watched the growing hostility to religion in the United States. He knows how that story ends. He’s living it. These things are the calling card of tyranny, he said. We must learn from him and be lovingly defiant in the face of it.
There’s an urgency to this problem, and it’s one we have to be a solution to — as a nation, for all who value freedom, certainty for fellow Christians. As Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan of New York put it in his rallying keynote at the same conference, their suffering must be our suffering. Dolan, who is the new head of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee on religious liberty, brought with him an icon of the Egyptian Coptic Christian martyrs who were beheaded by ISIS in Libya in 2015. He remembered in particular the one man who wasn’t Christian, who said he wanted to be of the faith the other men were. Dolan said he does, too. We must be who we say we are and stand by the suffering, weeping in prayer and working for mercy and justice and freedom. And certainly, consider them when taking action that will further affect them. Do something for the persecuted people before 2020 ends so that we act in time in thanksgiving for our blessings, even in the struggle.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.