Easter Reflection: Iraq and Syria's Christians pray for a new Resurrection

For Christians all over the world, Easter is a season of hope; Christ triumphant on Easter morning banishes the darkness of sin and death.

Here in Iraq, we have particular reason to rejoice in Christ’s victory over the powers of evil. It is a victory we so sorely need in a land where we are currently walking the Way of the Cross, desperately searching for signs of the Resurrection

As Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, in the Kurdish north of the country, I am shepherding my flock through one of the darkest eras in our long history. Last August, 125,000 Christians on Iraq’s Nineveh Plains fled the forces of Da’esh – so-called Islamic State. In a single night, 13 Christian towns and villages there were seized by Islamic State and the terrorists wiped out a community whose unbroken Christian presence stretches back to the first century AD. Their sacred liturgy, with its Aramaic texts, uses the very language that Jesus spoke.

125,000 people escaped from this new tyranny, many with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. Out into the night they went, leaving behind their beloved homes and ancestral lands, and sought sanctuary in Kurdistan. An exodus of Biblical proportions unfolded. Well might they say, as Jesus on the Cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

What Da’esh did on the Nineveh Plains replicates what they have been doing elsewhere. In Syria, in and around towns and cities such as Homs, Aleppo, Damascus and Hassake, ancient Christian communities have been targeted and banished from their homelands.

The Nineveh Plains are near to Mosul. When the Islamists seized that ancient city, they daubed the doorposts of Christians with the letter ‘N’ for ‘Nazarene’, the Arabic for ‘Christian’. It was a symbol chillingly reminiscent of Nazi hostility towards the Jews.

Many who escaped from Mosul described being forced to choose between abandoning their faith and converting to Islam or leaving. Islamic State had told them that if they failed to comply, “there is nothing for you but the sword".

I talk to many displaced people in Kurdistan. Gazella and Victoria are two elderly women of 80 or more. When Da’esh seized their town of Karemlesh, on the Nineveh Plains, they were too frail to leave. The terrorists found them, frogmarched them to a hilltop outside the town, and on pain of death told them to convert, promising them paradise if they did so.

Gazella told me her response. She bravely told those who threatened to murder her: “My vision of paradise is not yours. It is about love, forgiveness, peace and mercy. But if you want to kill me for what I believe, I am willing to die."

Somehow, these two women were set free and eventually reached Kurdistan. Their story sums up the hopelessness of the situation, but it also contains a glimmer of hope. They did not die, and they did not give up their faith. At Easter, as I search for hope, I find it in them.

As our fellow Christians reached Kurdistan hungry, frightened and with nothing, the Church welcomed them, giving over every available square foot of our land to the new arrivals. 14,000 Christian families have arrived in Erbil, far more than the number of Christians who live here. Outside my cathedral of St Joseph in Ankawa, a largely Christian suburb of Erbil, we have erected row upon row of tents. Those unable to find a place sheltered under bridges, on building sites, anywhere that would give them some form of protection from the elements.

Christian organisations around the world have been quick to respond to this crisis. Food supplies were sent through a programme co-ordinated by a group of young volunteers. The old and infirm were moved out of the tents into rented accommodation. The Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need (acnuk.org), has provided PVC caravans and equipment for eight schools for the children, five in Erbil and three in Dohuk, to the north. It is a stopgap, but not a solution, especially if, after 2000 years, there is going to be a continuing Christian presence in Iraq and Syria. At least 25,000 of the 125,000 people who came to Kurdistan last summer have already gone on to neighbouring countries. Iraq’s Christian presence has been reduced from one million to less than 300,000 in 15 years. Our future as a community is precarious. For many, if not most of my fellow Christians, a new life abroad is what they now want.

We want to offer an alternative to emigration, but time is running out. In an ideal world, those like Gazella and Victoria would be able to return home to their homes and lands. The recapture of Tikrit this week has given some hope, but more needs to be done. Da’esh are not worthy of the title they give themselves or the territory they have seized. They are terrorists and must be treated as such.

In February, I travelled to London and spoke at the Church of England Synod, in Westminster Cathedral and at the Houses of Parliament. I appealed for support to win back our ancient Christian homelands and 2000-year-old way of life. We need the UK’s help – technical aid, financial assistance, intelligence, and indeed military support – to oust these fanatics from our lands. It is possible, but only if we act together.

In the scripture readings for Easter, which tell of Jesus’ passion and death, we see how most of his closest companions abandoned him. Their loss of faith at the moment of his betrayal seemed to be vindicated once and for all by his death. But a new day brings a new dawn, an Easter morning.

My prayer this Easter is that you in the West keep faith with us, the Christians of the Middle East. The sufferings we have experienced these past months are in so many ways unsurpassed and unbearable, but bear them we do thanks to the compassion, the support and the engagement of our friends in other parts of the world. It has far exceeded all our hopes and expectations. It has lightened our darkness and points towards the resurrection.

The Most Reverend Bashar M Warda CSsR is Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, northern Iraq.

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