Iraq’s Christian community is showing some signs of renaissance and hope after a steep decline that began with the US invasion of the country two decades ago, which sparked an exodus that drove most into exile.
At least, this is happening in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the community is growing, this according to Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, who heads the Eastern Catholic Archeparchy of Erbil.
The rising numbers are not only due to migration within the country, but also to Christians who had fled abroad to escape poverty, extremist violence, and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group in the summer of 2014.
In a recent visit to the United States, the prelate spoke about the many struggles and hardships experienced by Christians and Iraqis in general, especially under the reign of ISIS.
Although not as intense, such challenges and difficulties continue even today with government corruption as the main obstacle to the country’s true revival.
In the United States, Archbishop Warda received an honorary doctorate from Walsh University, a private Roman Catholic university in North Canton (Ohio), and met with officials from various Catholic universities to discuss cooperation with the Catholic University in Erbil (CUE), which he founded after the Islamic State’s rise.
The Christian population in Iraq once exceeded a million, but has dropped to about 200,000, he told Aleteia, an online Catholic news and information website. However, some of those who fled to the countries of the diaspora, especially in the West, have chosen to return, many of them stopping in Erbil, in the north, where the situation is calmer.
Asked about the reason for their return, many say they wanted to raise their children in a truly Catholic environment, the 53-year-old Warda explained, adding also “Because we live in the safe area of Kurdistan in northern Iraq”,
Since the Islamic State’s defeat, the number of Christian families in Erbil doubled from 2,000 to 4,000. In addition, “we welcomed in the area Churches that had not been there before. So today, the Christian area of what we call Ankawa has the Assyrian Church, Syrian Catholic Eparchy, Syriac Orthodox Eparchy, Armenian Church, Latin Church, different Churches.”
This brings the Christian population of Erbil to over 8,000 families.
The visit of Pope Francis in March 2021 also boosted the Christian presence, giving further impetus to existing projects. The archeparchy, for example, has opened a hospital and four new schools. The Syriac Orthodox Church opened its own school. In total, the city has 18 Christian educational establishments.
Muslims like these establishments as well, and many send their children to Catholic schools because they trust them for their high quality of teaching.
After being under Islamic State rule, “everyone realized that using religion or using violence in the name of God and religion is a devastating fact and it’s going to affect all,” Archbishop Warda explained.
When the group took over, it displaced about 125,000 Christians and more than three million Sunnis and killed many Shiites. So many reacted thinking, “enough [is] enough”, when it comes to “using the name of God and religion and spreading violence.”
The pontiff's visit also made it possible to speak of Iraq for something other than violence and attacks, namely a journey and an encounter based on dialogue and fraternity.
“We thank God that we passed the difficult times, but the challenges are still there, and we look on our Christian brothers and sisters [in the West] to really help us maintain this kind of help, support, solidarity so [that] we can continue.”