‘In times of trouble, it’s always the most vulnerable who suffers the worst,” Archbishop Bashar Warda, Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, Iraq, warned just before Thanksgiving. He was speaking at a mostly virtual global conference, sponsored by the Anglosphere Society, focused on persecuted Christians and other religious minorities around the globe. Iraq, China, Lebanon, and Nigeria were highlighted, to name a few.
Warda speaks to Westerners not as a beggar but as a realist. And, of course, he tells us facts about a reality that we have some responsibility for, given some of our international interventions of years past:
For displaced Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, acknowledged as victims of genocide at the hands of ISIS, our troubles do not seem to end but to continue and to multiply. International war was followed by civil war, followed by violence and persecution and displacement, followed by even more violent war and then genocide, followed by massive displacement and economic ruin, followed by mass immigration, and followed now by pandemic, continued displacement, economic disaster, and, for too many of our people, a growing loss of hope.
It’s an existential crisis for Iraqi Christians, who have been in the region since the earliest days of Christianity.
“It pains me greatly to say this,” Warda continued, “but I must be honest with you. We Christians of Iraq are now down to our last remnant people: less than 250,000 by all counts, and should the world forget us in this time, it’s quite likely that we will have disappeared by the time the world chooses to look upon us again.”
That said: They are still there. Fighting to stay there. Asking for God’s grace in the midst of violence and hate, “with whatever strength, courage, and hope that we are able to still find.”
They are not asking us to fix the situation for them, but they are asking us to care.
I’m always struck by the gratitude they have for those who do. And there is also a hoping against hope happening these days, despite their circumstances: Not long after Warda’s conference remarks, news broke that Pope Francis will visit Iraq in the new year. That’s potentially a game-changer for the Christians and other persecuted religious minorities there.
Pope Francis has been talking since the beginning of his papacy about the fact that there are more persecuted Christians in the world now than in the early years of Christianity. For Christians, that means we have a solidarity with the first apostles; it also means we have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters on this earth who are suffering.
It’s also why our little religious-freedom conflicts here at home matter in bigger ways than we may realize. I realize that when people talk about a “war on Christmas,” it sounds laughable to many because Christmas trees are everywhere. But when the Little Sisters of the Poor have to go to the Supreme Court to defend their conscience rights not once but twice, and when government has used the coronavirus to place arbitrary and irrational restrictions on places of worship, we should be alarmed and vigilant.
The most alarming thing Archbishop Warda said was about us. After chronicling all the people fighting for religious freedom around the world, he said he is not alone in being frightened watching the U.S. The persecuted look to us “for leadership and stability,” but it’s getting harder to. What they see is “a deeply fractured country” and, this year, “acts of destruction and physical attacks on religious symbols and institutions.” These are not “simply random events,” Warda said. From his “bitter experience,” he sees them as “calling cards for a far greater danger that lies at the end of this dark path. We worry greatly about what is to come. Will the future of our small and vulnerable communities be forgotten now amidst all of the larger concerns and priorities in this polarized world?”
We have been gifted a marvelous experiment in pluralism here in the United States — a beacon of freedom to the world. We owe it to our God, who gives us all good gifts, to be better stewards. We owe it also to the people who have come before us, to our children, and to all the persecuted around the world at this very moment. “It is always the most vulnerable that suffers the worst,” Warda repeated. “We Christians of Iraq hope that the political situation in the U.S. will follow a peaceful and stable process.” Let’s move forward as better citizens — people of virtue who respect human life and freedom — with his warning and plea as a motivator, and with the courage of the persecuted as inspiration.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.