Last August, 125,000 Christians on Iraq’s Nineveh Plains fled the forces of Da’esh — the so-called Islamic State. In a single night, 13 Christian towns and villages there were seized by Islamic State and the terrorists wiped out a community whose unbroken Christian presence stretches back to the first century AD. Their sacred liturgy, with its Aramaic texts, uses the very language that Jesus spoke.
“I am shepherding my flock through one of the darkest eras in our long history,” says the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Matti Warda.
The Nineveh Plains are near Mosul. When the Islamists seized that ancient city, they painted the doors of Christians with the letter ‘N’ for ‘Nazarene’, the Arabic word for ‘Christian’. It was a symbol chillingly reminiscent of Nazi hostility towards the Jews.
Many who escaped from Mosul described being forced to choose between abandoning their faith and converting to Islam or leaving. Islamic State had told them that if they failed to comply, “there is nothing for you but the sword.”
Archbishop Warda has spoken to many displaced people in Kurdistan. He tells the story of Gazella and Victoria, two elderly women who bravely told those who threatened to murder her, “My vision of paradise is not yours. It is about love, forgiveness, peace and mercy. But if you want to kill me for what I believe, I am willing to die.”
Somehow, these two women were set free and eventually reached Kurdistan. Their story sums up the hopelessness of the situation, but it also contains a glimmer of hope. They did not die, and they did not give up their faith. At Easter, Kurdish Christians pray for the hope and courage found in these women.
Welcoming Arms in Kurdistan
As Christians from Syria and northwestern Iraq arrive in Kurdistan, they are welcomed by Kurdish Christians, who are giving over every available square foot to the new arrivals. According to Archbishop Warda, 14,000 Christian families have arrived in Erbil, far more than the number of Christians who live there. Row upon row of tents have been erected outside the cathedral of St. Joseph in Ankawa, a largely Christian suburb of Erbil.
It is a stopgap, but not a permanent solution, “Especially,” Archbishop Warda says, “if, after 2000 years, there is going to be a continuing Christian presence in Iraq and Syria.” Iraq’s Christian presence has been reduced from one million to less than 300,000 in 15 years, and continues to rapidly decrease as the Islamic State threatens Christian way of life.
A Global Response
Christian organisations around the world have been quick to respond to this crisis. Food supplies were sent through a programme co-ordinated by a group of young volunteers. The old and infirm have been moved out of tents and into rented accommodation. The Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need (acnuk.org), has provided structures and equipment for eight schools for children, five in Erbil and three in Dohuk, to the north.
In February, Archbishop Warda travelled to London and spoke at the Church of England Synod, in Westminster Cathedral and at the Houses of Parliament. He appealed for support to win back the ancient Christian homelands, and asked for technical aid, financial assistance, and military support.
“My prayer this Easter,” said Archbishop Warda “is that you in the West keep faith with us, the Christians of the Middle East. The sufferings we have experienced these past months are in so many ways unsurpassed and unbearable, but bear them we do thanks to the compassion, the support and the engagement of our friends in other parts of the world. It has far exceeded all our hopes and expectations. It has lightened our darkness and points towards the resurrection.”[Read more at The Telegraph]