Warda: Ukraine war, inflation nags at Chaldeans' recovery in northern Iraq

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- If you were wondering, the war in Ukraine is having an adverse effect on the Chaldean Catholic community in northern Iraq, which itself went through spasms of violence eight years ago when an Islamic State terror campaign threatened to empty the region of its Christians.

Inflation is taking its toll, too.

"The prices of everything," including food and gasoline, are "getting high," said Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil, Iraq. "Everything is higher by 25%."

Archbishop Warda, in a July 18 phone interview with Catholic News Service from Brooklyn, New York, voiced his compassion for the Ukraine war's victims, as Iraq's Chaldean population had similarly suffered in 2014.

"Whenever there is a war, we are really hurt by all of the people who have been hurt because of the war, directly or indirectly," he said.

"It's really a tragedy. You see all of these images coming about the destruction, about the violence. Even here, people don't go to the site of (a bombing) hit," the archbishop said. "It brings back to us, the Christians in Iraq, all of the memories of the past wars as well."

Archbishop Warda added, "Every war has its consequences, either directly or indirectly. One is the inflation which affects all of the people."

Nor has northern Iraq been spared the effects of COVID-19. The archbishop told CNS it "had been quiet" for the first few months of the pandemic, but when the coronavirus hit the region in August 2020, it came "really hard," he said.

Archbishop Warda himself was among those infected.

However, "when the vaccines started coming, people started getting (them)," he added. "We got special funds to help people who are in need of oxygen. ... We have a team of doctors who volunteer to help in that project."

Also, neighboring Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021. Archbishop Warda, 53, can remember when the Soviet army got into a quagmire there 40 years ago. He also recalls the renewed focus on Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks on U.S. soil 21 years ago, which prompted a U.S. campaign to root out Osama bin Laden, believed to be hiding there.

"It's a reminder that you are getting old," Archbishop Warda said.

He estimates the number of Chaldeans in Iraq at just shy of 300,000, not all of whom live in the northern part of the country.

"It's really a very difficult question to answer. We say less than 300,000 Christians in Iraq, but we don't have an accurate number. But that would be figuring the number that we start talking about," Archbishop Warda said.

"We have a few (returning) families -- they came back because they were many years in Lebanon to be redeployed and didn't get it, so they came back. Right now, because of the political instability in the region, it's really making it not fully safe to come back."

One key indicator of instability: There is no effective federal government in Iraq. "There is no government yet. This is not good. This is really not good because of the political dispute among the parties," Archbishop Warda said.

"What we've managed as a church is to stop this bleeding of people leaving. We were able to stop it for right now," he said.

Another positive sign is the ongoing reconstruction effort in northern Iraq, he said.

The archbishop was in New York for talks with Aid to the Church in Need/USA about the future of Christianity in Iraq, determining what projects need funding most urgently.

ACN/USA has been a major funder of the rebuilding of Christian communities in northern Iraq in the wake of the Islamic State occupation of the region from 2014 to 2017.

"A good number of the houses have been renovated, thanks to the people. ACN is one of them and so many other people," Archbishop Warda said, including the Knights of Columbus in that group.

"USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) is also coming back strongly, with schools and some facilities," he added.

The goal, according to the archbishop, was to renovate houses for the people first, and then tend to churches wrecked by violence.

Churches in the Irbil area were not damaged by Islamic State attacks, Archbishop Warda said. "Since 2014" -- the year the ISIS campaign began -- "I've consecrated two new parishes built in the area of Irbil," he added.

Archbishop Warda planned to be in the United States through Aug. 4 to visit friends as well as patrons and donors and to connect with Chaldeans in the country -- including a four-day stopover in Detroit, home to a sizable Chaldean community.