Catholics in Iraq "breathe Christ in their work, their encounters and their exchanges with others," Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq, told OSV News.
The archbishop, a member of the Redemptorist order, shared his thoughts May 12 while visiting the U.S. to give presentations at a number of institutions. Among the stops on his itinerary were Boston College and Harvard University's Catholic Center, as well as Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio, where he received an honorary doctorate and delivered the school's commencement address.
Throughout the tour, the archbishop has emphasized how the Church in Iraq is alive – and steadily working to lift up the light of Christ amid a divisive, darkened world.
"Despite the persecution, the difficulties, the marginalization … we keep on," said Archbishop Warda. "We keep on in the faith that we have a mission (in Iraq)."
The Middle East nation, where approximately 98% of the population is Muslim, has been home to Christian communities for some 2,000 years, having been evangelized by St. Thomas the Apostle and his disciples. The Chaldean Church, which has its own liturgy and hierarchy, is one of the 23 sui iuris ("of its own rite") Eastern Catholic Churches that along with the Roman Catholic Church comprise the universal Catholic Church. The Chaldean patriarchate is located in Baghdad under Cardinal Louis Sako.
Iraqi Catholics and Christians have historically endured persecution, particularly over the past two decades. Prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, an estimated 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq, but today only a few hundred thousand are believed to remain, with the rest driven abroad by sectarian violence, poverty, repression and discrimination.
Religious militants, led by al-Qaida, rose to power following Hussein's fall, targeting Christians through bombings, kidnappings and killings. In 2008, Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul was abducted and slain. Two years later, two priests and dozens of worshippers were massacred by Islamic State (IS) militants at a Baghdad Catholic Church.
A 2014 wave of attacks against religious minorities ensued as IS fighters seized Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plains. Christians and Yazidis (an ancient Indigenous community) fled toward Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, with thousands of Yazidi women and girls sexually enslaved by IS militants.
Iraq declared victory over IS in 2017, and the Chaldean Catholic Church – which provided displaced minorities with critical humanitarian aid throughout the attacks – is part of ongoing efforts to restore the Nineveh Plains Christian communities and the Church as a whole in Iraq.
"We try as Church leaders and people together to live our Gospel of hope with the people remaining there," said Archbishop Warda. "God has not created (the Church) in Iraq for chance or for nothing. … He wants us to do something for the people and the community, and to spread the Good News."
That mission is lived out concretely, with Archbishop Warda leading initiatives to foster peace and cooperation through education, social support and employment.
In 2015, the archbishop founded the Catholic University in Erbil, which currently counts 420 students of all faiths studying in 12 departments.
"There is a spirit of Christ," said Archbishop Warda. "That's the kind of evangelization we would like."
Five years later, the archdiocese drew on local and international partnerships to establish the nonprofit Maryamana Hospital in Erbil, named for Mary and providing health care throughout Kurdistan and Iraq.
The hospital was a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the archbishop.
"We were close to the people, offering free medical service, oxygen and different types of help," he said.
The archbishop recalled one Muslim man who offered hospital staff $1,000 for a critically needed tank of oxygen.
"We said, 'No, we won't sell it to you,' and gave him a bottle," said Archbishop Warda. "After a month, he returned that container with an extra 11 as a donation."
Such encounters highlight the "Christian quality of service" by which Iraqi Catholics "try to spread the Gospel," he said. "Whoever is being touched can ask us for more information about Christ, and we are ready to tell him."
Pope Francis' 2021 visit to Iraq helped to show the world that "Iraq is not (simply) a country of bombing and sheltering, kidnapping, killing and violence, but also a country that's joyful in welcoming guests," said Archbishop Warda. "For the first time, the world saw different pictures from Iraq, and of us as Christians."
The papal visit also reminded fellow Iraqis of the nation's rich Christian history, he added.
"We (had been) neglected in the media and in the school curriculum about the roots of the Christian community in Iraq. Nothing was mentioned about our monasteries, our contribution in the ninth century of translating philosophical texts from Greek to Arabic, our Christian schools, scholars, qualified people," he said. "The response of the people was, 'Oh, yes, we know those Christian people – they are very peaceful, trusted people. If you want a job done, ask a Christian.'"
Although they now enjoy greater safety and stability, many Christians continue to face discrimination in Iraqi society, he admitted.
"Qualified people do not get their full positions, and they are marginalized," said the archbishop.
To counter "the culture of sectarianism," he invites "every qualified person to teach or work in our schools," regardless of faith.
Chaldean Catholics form "a living, missionary Church," said Archbishop Warda. "It's a faith fact that once you stop being a missionary, you stop being a Christian. Being a responsible missionary means that you are willing to give what you are to others, and that you want them to live the joy you have in your heart."
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.