The dramatic situation of refugees and displaced people. The responsibility of the international community. The possibility of a new international intervention to stop the Islamic State. We spoke with Monsignor Bashar Matti Warda, Archbishop of Erbil.
“The more time passes, the more Christians lose hope to be able to return to their homes. One year after the massive exodus of Christians from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, none of us indulges in false illusions concerning the possibility that the territories in the hands of the Islamic State may be quickly freed”. The Archbishop of Erbil, Msgr. Bashar Matti Warda, described the despair of the many Christians arrived in Erbil, a city just 30 kilometers from Mosul, the capital of Northern Kurdistan.
The Church is deeply involved in assisting the many Christians but also people of other religious groups that arrive every day from the territories occupied by the Islamic State. “The situation of the displaced is very hard – said the Archbishop – these people have lost everything, they are traumatized, there is only a refugee camp on their horizon”. The displaced in the Iraqi Kurdistan (5 million inhabitants) are a million and 800 thousand, 156,000 in Erbil alone.
“There are currently only 300,000 Christians, across Iraq – said Archbishop Matti Warda – while in 2003 they were 1,200,000. This means that, in 12 years, the number of Christians has shrunk by one million. Being Christians in Iraq today means leading a nomadic existence: moving from one place to another with the few belongings that one manages to take with him. It also means not having churches where to practice the Christian worship, because they have been destroyed. Most Christians live in tents and we are trying to rebuild the community in these tents, where we also celebrate the Eucharist. The Church is currently experiencing discouragement; all the pastoral, educational and mission projects have been lost. All that was built no longer exists. We wonder what our future will be. What will happen tomorrow? What will happen to us? How long will it take before all this ends? We do not have an answer to these questions”.
“I feel that we, as Church – said the Archbishop – must learn to walk with and to listen to the displaced people, we must share their feelings, their fears which are ours as well. I am impressed by the people I met, they have lost everything, nevertheless, they continue to believe in and trust God with extraordinary strength”.
The Archbishop did not spare harsh criticism of the Iraqi parties. “They have used the religious feeling to create a conflict which then spread and devastated the lives of people. Moreover, the political and financial corruption led the country to the very depths of crisis. The worst thing is that people do not trust institutions anymore, and have lost hope for a change. There is a serious political and economic crisis, but also religious”.
Archbishop Matti Warda highlighted the regional dimension of the crisis. “If we faced a problem concerning only Iraqi, the solution would be easier. But the Islamic State is not composed only of Iraqi people, but also of people coming from other countries such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia… And then there are 30,000 people from Western Europe, the United States or from Australia fighting alongside the Islamic State. The Baghdad government is backed by Sunni governments such as that of Saudi Arabia, that actively participate in the fight against the Islamic State. It is a very confusing situation, a conflict between several countries and several rebel groups”.
The Archbishop of Erbil thinks that a military action on the ground should be taken into consideration. “I think it would be important to consider a well planned and organised international intervention. I think that a serious military action on the ground would be more appropriate than sporadic shelling. We must keep in mind that the ideology of the Islamic State does not imply dialogue. The IS militants call themselves ‘the faithful servants of God’ and their only purpose is extending the caliphate throughout the world, governed by Sharia law, the most rigid interpretation of the Koran. For this reason, dialogue with IS, in my opinion, can be ruled out”.
“The first thing to do is to stop the IS’ advancement”, said the Archbishop, “and we must also acknowledge that Europe and the West have direct responsibility for what is going on in our land. It is not just a problem of the Middle East, but of the entire international community. Once ISIS is stopped, we must work according to a humanitarian perspective, helping people to rebuild their homes and their villages and to lead a dignified life and have hope for the future. The Kurdish and Iraqi governments are already collaborating for the creation of policies that serve to outline a more stable future”.
“My greatest wish – concluded Archbishop Matti Warda – is that families can return to their homes as soon as possible, and may recover their land and their lives. Being back in the place where they belong is fundamental, even if they will have to rebuild their homes, their lives, their culture. We, as Christians, can do a lot for these people, since the Church is good at building bridges of peace, communication and dialogue. We can’t give up, our mission is hard but is worthwhile”. (H.L.)