Church in Iraq perseveres, archbishop tells young Catholics at Harvard

CAMBRIDGE -- Archbishop Bashar Warda recalled the words of Pope Francis when he asserted that "The Church in Iraq is alive" despite years of conflict and persecution in that country during a recent talk at the Harvard Catholic Center.

Archbishop Warda, the archbishop of the Chaldean Eparchy of Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, made his remarks as he addressed dozens of young adults at the Catholic Center on May 8 as part of the Boston chapter of Young Catholic Professionals' executive speaker series.

In his talk, Archbishop Warda spoke about the situation for Christians in Iraq over the last two decades and answered numerous questions from the audience about the challenges he and his people have faced.

He shared that one of his favorite stories to meditate on is the miraculous catch of fish after the Resurrection. When Peter went fishing, the other apostles insisted on accompanying him, and they fished all night but caught nothing, until they saw the risen Christ.

"The story is not about achievements or big results. It's about how we can really work with perseverance and continue working in order to meet Christ," Archbishop Warda said.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, the situation for Christians in Iraq has been "complicated," he said. Over 60 churches, shrines, and monasteries were bombed, and many bishops and priests were kidnapped or killed. One of Archbishop Warda's friends, Father Ragheed Ganni, was killed in Mosul in 2007 after refusing to close his church. While already a minority, the Christian population shrank drastically, from 1.5 million before 2003 to about 150,000 today. Many fled after ISIS took over much of the country in 2014.

Archbishop Warda said his own life has been in danger at times. His diocese once received a tip that his church would be bombed, which enabled them to move Masses to a different location. A few years later, he had to move to another parish to avoid being kidnapped.

Throughout his priesthood, a major priority of his ministry has been education, Archbishop Warda said. When his church was bombed in 2004, he responded by building a neighborhood school. He has also established two other schools, a university, and a hospital.

"Education, for me, was a key for reconciliation, building bridges of trust among the community, and most importantly, for future generations, it would be sign of hope," Archbishop Warda said.

He said that young people "were always an inspiration" for him. For example, they organized to meet the immediate needs of displaced people who came to the churches for help.

In his remarks to the young professionals, he stressed the importance of training and empowering students to become leaders in the future.

"Unless you empower the young people to be leaders, no one will hear," Archbishop Warda said.

When asked what the Church in the U.S. can learn from the Church in Iraq, he said, "Do not be afraid. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep showing your faith. The world needs you."

Michael O'Connor, who helped to arrange the event, also spoke briefly about his recent trip to Iraq.

A graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, O'Connor went to Iraq in April to visit a friend teaching in Erbil. During his two-week stay, he ended up serving as a substitute teacher in the same school, and "fell in love with the community." He has decided to return for the following school year.

O'Connor encouraged those in attendance to pray for the Church in Iraq, support aid organizations in the country, and consider visiting or working there.

In a subsequent interview, he recommended donating to such charities as the Knights of Columbus or Aid to the Church in Need. However, he said, the greatest resource needed is people.

"The archdiocese (of Erbil) needs good people who are willing to give of themselves and willing to experience new things, exciting things," O'Connor said.

He said the "biggest thing" he learned, and which more people in America should know, is how much hope -- the "real, theological virtue of hope" -- there is in Iraq and around the world.

"If it wasn't for the grace of God, the Church wouldn't have survived this long, but we know that it's going to keep going," O'Connor said.

"We have a responsibility to live out that hope here as well," he added.

Speaking with The Pilot after his talk, Archbishop Warda said he felt "joy that people in such an environment still committed to hear about stories about their brothers and sisters' faith in difficulties."

He said he could tell from the audience members' expressions that they were "focused" and "very sympathetic."

"That's a sign that people want to do something, they want to help, and this is quite encouraging, to spread the news," he said.