I once put Kim Kardashian’s name in the title of a column about Christian persecution in Sudan. There was some weak justification, but mostly I just wanted people to click through to possibly care for a minute about the plight of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Over the past two weeks, I had the honor of spending some extended time with Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil, Iraq. Earlier this summer, he was actually a guest at a dinner honoring me at The Catholic University of America when he happened to be in Washington, D.C. That’s something I’m not worthy of. And a not-so-subtle reminder that the persecuted witness to us in ways that we cannot fully process or understand. Also, they are not so foreign that they cannot be our friends.
Irbil doesn’t require Kardashian click-bait as much as Sudan or Nigeria might. Nigeria seems beyond the care of the United States. Despite routine kidnappings and murders of priests, the State Department here has de-listed Nigeria as a country of concern. There’s no defense, other than we simply don’t care. I hate to generalize, but people don’t want to know about things that seem so beyond our help. I pray racism isn’t a part of the story. America’s care for the AIDS pandemic in Africa I hope suggests otherwise. But I still have my suspicions.
Faith in Iraq
Irbil doesn’t require the same salacious attempts for you to read about them, because they are a success story. Despite a dwindling Christian population in the wake of the ISIS genocide in Iraq, there is hope there. Christians had to flee their homes in Mosul for Irbil, near Kurdistan. Archbishop Warda had to figure out how to minister to them. With the help of the Knights of Columbus, he managed to open a Catholic university and a hospital. He knew he had to give parents some confidence that there was a future for their children in Iraq. He knew he had to minister to the trauma of the people who had to flee life as they knew it.
Part of the reason I love to be around Iraqi Christians is that they tend to have their priorities straight. The first time I interviewed a priest from there who had been tortured by Islamic militants, he simply overflowed with grace and gratitude. I apologized to him for U.S. policies I supported that made the life of Christians more difficult in Iraq. I was amazed by what he was able to survive. He assured me that God would give me the grace if I ever was in a similar situation. He assured me any perseverance was God.
Similarly, Archbishop Warda doesn’t blame us for anything — even though he could — so much as he is grateful to those of us who care to pay attention today. The Franciscan University of Steubenville has an ongoing relationship with The Catholic University of Irbil. Graduates are teaching over in Iraq. The president of the university set something beautiful in motion when he went over for an unprecedented papal visit to Iraq in March 2021. When we get to know one another, Christian persecution isn’t as academic or exotic. It’s also more real than our “War on Christmas” grievances. Threats to religious liberty at home are real, but it’s not the same as being second-class citizens at best.
Leadership of Archbishop Warda
Iraqi Christians are in a better place than they were, in no small part because of the courageous leadership of Archbishop Warda. A good father, he encourages people to come and see for themselves that Christianity is alive and well and wants to remain a land where St. Thomas preached. It’s important to not see them as victims so much as witnesses. So often I have heard Iraqi Christians talk about how their faith was strengthened because of the choices ISIS forced them to make. Christ is truly the most important to those who must choose. Those of us in the United States still have the luxury of being able to be lukewarm. We are distracted. There are many things going on in our culture — and even in our Church — that should force us out of distraction. And yet, practical atheism remains.
Archbishop Warda radiates a peaceful strength and the kind of wisdom that comes from having to surrender to God in ways we don’t always do, even though that’s our call. We should not only learn from him but ask him how we can help. Pray. Support their work. And step up to the plate of courage in ways that stretch us.
The Iraqi Christian story stands on its own without disingenuous clickbait. And could just make us saints.