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‘We Will Stand With You’


by Columbia staff

An interview with Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil about the humanitarian efforts of the Church in Iraq

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil, Iraq, stands in front of the McGivney House, a 140-unit apartment building that the Knights of Columbus is helping complete for Christian families and elderly people unable to return to their homes elsewhere in Iraq. Photo by Claire Thomas

For the past four years, the city of Erbil, in northeastern Iraq, has been the epicenter of one of the most significant humanitarian relief efforts of our time. A primary destination for those forced from their homes by the Islamic State, the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, led by Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, has served displaced minority communities since the summer of 2014. The Knights of Columbus has closely collaborated with the archdiocese to help ensure a continued Christian presence in Iraq.

In addition to providing food, shelter and medical care for the displaced communities in Erbil, the Order has helped Christians return to their homes in the Nineveh Plain area. And for those unable to return, the Order has assisted with the construction of a 140-unit apartment building in Erbil. Called the McGivney House in honor of the Knights’ founder, the building will provide housing for Syriac and Chaldean Christian families, as well as for elderly men and women left without care after their homeland was invaded by ISIS.

In July, Columbia spoke with Archbishop Warda about the McGivney House and the Order’s ongoing efforts to aid Christians in the Middle East.

COLUMBIA: What impact has the Knights of Columbus had on assisting displaced Christians in Iraq?

ARCHBISHOP WARDA: The work of the Knights helping the displaced Christians from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain is a historic work. Without this support, Christianity would disappear in our region.

After the Daesh (ISIS) invasion, more than 125,000 Christians and others fled Mosul and the Nineveh Plain [to Iraqi Kurdistan] — crying with no one to help, except for the Church. Neither the U.N. nor the Iraqi government was taking care of these displaced people. Then, the Knights came and worked closely with us to help ease the suffering of those displaced families — and not just Christians but Yazidis, everyone — by providing them with food, medicine, shelter.

The Knights said, “We are with you. We will stand with you. We’ll support you. We will be in this together.” That gave great hope to the Christian community. And that’s why today we have so many families returning to their liberated villages.

COLUMBIA: How did the McGivney House project in Erbil come about?

ARCHBISHOP WARDA: The archdiocese already had constructed the framework for a large hospital, but due to the crisis, we postponed the work. Then we spoke with Supreme Knight Anderson and came up with this project: to use this building to welcome more than 100 families displaced families and also accommodate the elderly people who have been left without care.

More than 5,000 families have been able to return to such towns as Karamles, Qaraqosh and Teleskof. But we still have thousands of families in Erbil who haven’t decided yet to stay or to leave because their homes have been destroyed completely. When we finish, we hope to accommodate families here and provide them safety. Among other things, we still need to install electrical generators to provide electricity for the McGivney House before people can move in.

COLUMBIA: What has been the experience of the people coming home to the Nineveh Plain region?

ARCHBISHOP WARDA: Everyone who returned to their village was shocked by the horror of the scene. Their houses were burned or damaged. They lacked power, a water supply, roads, medical — they needed everything. Still, they were hopeful and began reconstruction. With the help of the Church, thousands of families have been able to return home.

Today, we have families returning to Karamles, which is being rebuilt through the generous donation of $2 million from the Knights.

The most immediate need has been the renovation of the houses. That’s really a priority for us as a Church. We want as many families to go back and start life again, but they need a proper and dignified house.

Also important is renovation of medical clinics and of schools, so that our children can continue their education and have adequate health care. Another basic infrastructure need is good roads. Finally, the restoration of churches and preservation of the shrines and monasteries.

Security is also needed. We are working with the Knights to continue to put the pressure on all governments — Baghdad, Washington, Erbil — to provide the needed security for the Christians and for the Yazidis.

We must ensure that the Christians will stay in their historical lands and play an important part also in bringing stability to the region.

COLUMBIA: Can you share your perspective about the future of Christianity in the Middle East?

ARCHBISHOP WARDA: Christianity has been in the Middle East for 2,000 years. The origin of Christianity is here. St. Paul, St. Thomas, St. Peter — they were all in the Middle East. The whole Gospel started here.

I do believe that the cause of all of the trouble and violence in the Middle East today is sin. And the Gospel of Jesus Christ is forgiveness. This troubled Middle East needs reconciliation and forgiveness, and we [Christians] are the people of forgiveness, of reconciliation. We have to be here to set an example that despite all the atrocities and all this persecution, we are able to say, “We love you, we forgive you. Let’s start life again together. Let’s start the dialogue of life again together.”

So the cure for the Middle East is Jesus Christ, and we are the ones who must carry Jesus Christ to the people.

COLUMBIA: Do you have any words you would like to share with members of the Knights of Columbus worldwide?

ARCHBISHOP WARDA: Thank you for your solidarity, your love, for being a good neighbor to all the affected and persecuted Christians and Yazidis. You have given a great example to all the people in the Middle East — especially in Iraq and Syria — of what the love of Christ can do. And you have made a big difference in the lives of so many families.

We are so grateful for the work of the Knights. Because of your help, Christianity in Middle East has survived.