(Vatican Radio) Calling Catholic Eastern rite Churches the “martyrs of our times,” Cardinal Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, has asked for prayers for peace and justice across the Middle East - particularly in Syria, Iraq and the Holy Land.
Speaking to participants of a meeting of ROACO, the "Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches," Cardinal Sandri said Eastern rite Christians in the region give constant and “heroic” witness to their fidelity to Christ - to the point of sustaining “ violence, kidnapping and bloodshed.”
The Cardinal made those remarks in his homily at a mass in the Vatican Tuesday for ROACO, a coalition of funding agencies coordinated by his Congregation for Eastern Churches and which concludes its 88th plenary meeting Wednesday. He also said that prayers should be said for the many people who have donated money and aid in solidarity with our “brother” Syrians and Iraqis. Much has been accomplished so far, he said, but the needs are so great that ‘much’ is never enough.
The Cardinal was echoing the dramatic words of Pope Francis who on Monday told ROACO participants that conflict in the Middle East makes “us feel the cold of a winter and a frost in the human heart that never seem to end.” “The land in these regions, crossed by the footsteps of those who seek refuge, is irrigated by the blood of so many men and women, including many Christians persecuted for their faith.”
Steep decline in Iraqi Christian population
Mgr. Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, in Northern Iraqi Kurdistan represents one community in particular need of ROACO’s help. He told Vatican Radio that when the Gulf War broke out in 2003, there were some 1.3 million Christians belonging to nine different Churches in Iraq. The majority, about 70%, were Chaldeans. But only some 300,000 Christians remain in the country today.
The arrival of the so-called Islamic State (IS or Daesh in Arabic) in Mosul in the summer of 2014 began what Archbishop Warda calls “the sixth wave of persecution [of Christians]”. Iraqi Christians had suffered five other periods of persecution over the last ten years, and many others prior to that.
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Since last year, Abp. Warda’s diocese of Erbil has given a home to some 13,000 Christian families fleeing IS with little more than the clothes on their backs.
The Chaldean Church leader expresses gratitude to the government of Kurdistan which is struggling under the “heavy burden” on its infrastructure and resources of the 1.6 million refugees who have flooded the area. They include Shia, Sunni, Yazidis and Kurds from different parts of Iraq who were also forced to leave their homes.
Christian Churches unite to help
Since the beginning of the crisis, leaders of the Syrian orthodox, Chaldean and Syrian Catholic churches are working together to care for the Christian refugees in Erbil, in cooperation with ROACO, Caritas Iraq and other charities.
Archbishop Warda calculates that some 7,000 families found rented accommodations soon after their arrival in Erbil but their money is either running out or they have none left to pay the monthly fees. “They are just spending and spending.”
“We have 1,300 families living in prefabricated caravans which were installed with the help of [Aid to the] Church in Need, Missio, Miserio; and Caritas Iraq and several Catholic aid agencies have participated in this,” continues the Archbishop.
An additional 2,000 families, he adds, are “well settled in houses rented by the Church.”
Dignity is in the home, work
The housing program is important, he stresses, because it returns dignity to the lives of families. Once they are relocated in new housing, the families are encouraged to find jobs so that they can pay their own electricity and water bills. “This gives them the dignity that they do need - the Catholic Church is…helping them to help themselves.”
It’s also “a way of reconciling with the [psychological] injuries [suffered] because of the forced displacement.”
Archbishop Warda says he was recently able to secure sufficient cash donations from Aid to the Church in Need to pay rental expenses for 491 homes through to the end of the year.
As the largest Church community in Iraq, the Chaldean Church, he says, feels a special responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of Christians.
But the Church has also provided help to non-Christians:
“We have also given material assistance [to non-Christians] in Ramadi and Anbar Province, giving aid in the form of food and basic needs supplies Yazidis and we tell them that we are with you not just in prayer but also in material help.”
“We thank God that so many churches, Caritas and episcopal conferences around the world have helped us. And his Holiness, mentioning always the suffering of our people and also donating to the aid work,” Archbishop Warda says, highlighting visits by various cardinals to express their solidarity with the people of Erbil and affected areas.
“Everyone now is just waiting for any news that comes concerning liberating Mosul and Ninevah Plain,” says Abp Warda – an event he thinks unlikely in the short term, however, because Iraq’s military readiness currently misses the mark.
A Middle East without Christians?
A Middle East without its Christians, he offers, would be a place where “slaughtering [and] killing innocents” would continue. It would be a Middle East “without human rights, freedom,” and a “one-colored” region “which was not the case at all in history and people will not tolerate this, which means more violence.”
“So we all have a responsibility to help keep all of these communities, not just to live but to flourish. Not just Christians, but all other communities who are different.”
Warda explains that Christianity in the Mesopotamia region goes back to the end of the first century A.D. “It’s been a period of ups and downs because of so many persecutions,” he says, adding that it is “the persecuted Church, the Church of the martyrs.”
Though the displaced Christians in Erbil consider themselves “a persecuted Church,” Archbishop Warda emphasizes, “they are full of hope, full of faith, that we have really to not just strive, but to work and to show that we are going to stay and not as people on the margins.”
“I would like as a Catholic bishop there to put my community in the heart of the society to take the initiatives concerning education, creating the leaders of the region,” says the Chaldean prelate. “It’s the only way to evangelize. To complete this mission in a way that the Lord will be pleased with our presence there.”