Even after witnessing the suffering of Christians at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil was still able to deliver a message of hope Nov. 28 as he celebrated a Mass for those killed by the terrorist group. The Mass, which took place at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., was celebrated mostly in Aramaic, the language believed to have been spoken by Jesus.
During his homily, Archbishop Warda reflected on the ways God can be found even in the midst of great persecution.
“There are many blessings in being persecuted,” he said. “We are a civilization that always wants to receive in order to give. ... The persecution, this genocide has shown to us the importance of giving with love and receiving with love.”
Show of solidarity
Persecution can lead to solidarity, the archbishop continued, because it allows those who are not suffering to show love for their neighbors through prayers and assistance.
“God shows his love and care by the solidarity being shown by people outside,” he said. “The suffering gives a chance for people of goodwill to show their love through praying every day.”
The archbishop also spoke of the faithful witness shown by Christians in Iraq, many of whom have died for their beliefs.
“They suffered at the hand of ISIS precisely because they love God with their whole heart, their body and their strength,” he said. “They love God more than their positions, their families and, in some cases, life itself.”
Archbishop Warda was appointed to his position in 2009, five years before ISIS invaded Northern Iraq, pushing many Christians living in Mosul and the Ninevah plains to relocate to Erbil. Since that time, he has led humanitarian efforts to provide food, shelter, education and spiritual nourishment for 15,000 displaced Christian families as well as non-Christian Yazidis.
He was joined at the Mass by Father Salar Kajo, a parish priest in Teleskof, Iraq, a town recently liberated from the Islamic State. In keeping with the traditions of the Chaldean Catholic Church, both priests chanted much of the Mass, including the Eucharistic prayers and the Our Father.
Hearing the traditional prayers in Aramaic was a powerful experience for Shawqi Talia, a member of the Chaldean Catholic community who attended the memorial Mass. Talia lived in Iraq as a teenager and has taught Arabic and Islamic Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., since the late 1970s.
“I had tears in my eyes,” he said. “For those of us who know the language, which goes back to the first century of Christ, it’s something that really brings us hope.” Talia said he was especially moved by the archbishop’s talk.
“He emphasized historically how the Christians of Iraq have kept the faith in spite of everything,” Talia said. “There was no rancor or hate or anything of that sort. And the Mass is a reflection of what every Christian living in Iraq or Syria feels and practices every single day.”
The Mass was part of “Solidarity in Suffering,” a week of awareness for persecuted Christians around the world, which began on Nov. 26 and was sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Aid to the Church in Need.
The week of awareness was inspired by a July report issued by Aid to the Church in Need, which detailed situations of violence and oppression faced by Christians in 13 countries: Nigeria, Sudan, Eritrea, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India, China and North Korea. This report followed 2015 findings from the Pew Research Center that said Christians are subject to government restrictions and cultural hostility in 128 countries around the world.
Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson called the week of awareness “an opportunity for us to help give a voice to those Christian communities whose witness can teach us so much and who truly need our support.”
“According to the Pew foundation, Christians are targeted in more countries around the world than any other faith group,” he said. “And Pope Francis has stated that there are more martyrs in the Catholic Church today than there were in the first centuries of Christianity.
“Today Christians in Iraq are on the front lines of this persecution. In fact they are in danger of disappearing from that country entirely.”
The memorial Mass was just one of several events during the week. On Monday, the archbishop spoke to scholars at Washington’s Dominican House of Studies. He also participated in a Nov. 30 conference at the United Nations on “Preserving Pluralism and Diversity in the Ninevah Region.”
During a Tuesday morning address to the media at the National Press Club, Archbishop Warda expressed gratitude for the sponsors of the week as well as the help provided by Christians in the United States.
“Knowing we are not forgotten gives us hope and we hope that Christians in the West will also learn from the brave witness of our people for the Faith,” he said.
The archbishop said he was grateful for Vice President Mike Pence’s October remarks, which promised to protect Christians in the Middle East and redirect U.S. aid money directly to persecuted communities, instead of the United Nations.
“We are also ready and committed to working with the U.S. government,” he said, “to help them ensure that the aid that they provide is put to the most effective use possible to aid our communities, the communities whose every need we have cared for since 2014.”
In recent years, the archbishop said he has watched his community struggle to “live as refugees inside their country.” Today, he said, the main priorities are helping people live safely and, if possible, return home.
“We are not asking for privileged life. We are asking for the minimum, and that minimum would be the sense of security and stability,” he said. “We are asking to give us a chance to live and to, at the same time, maintain this presence and remind us always that we are here for a mission.” He also asked U.S. Catholics to continue offering support through prayers, material donations and efforts to raise awareness.
“After three years, some people forget or are tired of hearing about the persecuted Christians,” he said. “We need the voice of our brothers and sisters to remind people that the persecutions and challenges are still there.”
Katie Bahr writes from Washington, D.C.