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Surprised by the Spirit: The Iraq Edition
A delegation from Franciscan University of Steubenville sees firsthand the efforts to save the Christian people of Iraq and Syria
By Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, Daniel R. Kempton, and Tiffany Boury
In 2018, Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, the Patriarchal Vicar of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, visited Franciscan University of Steubenville. While his tale was a compelling one, and most were empathetic to the plight of his flock, we had little real understanding of the troubles faced by Iraq’s Christians. But as we learned more, we discovered a shared understanding of our common pursuit of academic excellence and Catholic identity. In December 2019, Franciscan University and the newly formed Catholic University of Erbil signed an MOU, seeking greater collaboration.
Because of our relationship, it was not surprising that Archbishop Warda invited Franciscan University to send representatives to attend the anticipated Papal Mass in Erbil, Iraq earlier this year. What was surprising was Iraq itself.
Like most Americans, when Iraq is mentioned, we tended to think of Islam. But Iraq is home to one of the world’s first Christian churches. The Church in Iraq was founded by St. Thomas the Apostle at the beginning of his travels, which ultimately ended in his martyrdom in India. The local Chaldean Masses in Iraq, and the blessings we received from countless priests, were said in Aramaic, the same language Jesus spoke. What a blessing, literally, to hear the words of Christ spoken in His own language.
While St. Elijah’s, one of the oldest monasteries in Iraq, had been destroyed by ISIS, we were able to visit the Mar Mattai Monastery, founded by the hermit Mar Mattai (St. Mathew) in 363. Built into the side of a mountain just north of Mosul, it is riddled with caverns, many of which have been used by the monks as bolt holes to escape persecution. The fact that Christians have prayerfully manned Mar Mattai through the millennia makes it a tangible symbol of the Iraqi Christian community.
Despite their indigenous status, the Iraqi Christian community has undergone a steady decrease, which the American intervention in 2003 and the subsequent rise of ISIS markedly accelerated. The Christian community in Iraq was nearly 12% of the population in 1948 but had fallen to about 6% in 2003. Overall, the Christian population had shrunk from as high as 1.5 million at its height to around 300,000 today.
Rebuilding for the Future
With the rise of ISIS, Archbishop Warda faced a painful choice. He could assist the refugees in fleeing the Middle East for safe havens in North America and Europe. Or he could help accept them as internally displaced persons (IDPs) within his diocese and eventually send them back to rebuild their war-torn communities. While assisting in the emigration process would ensure the survival of individual Christians, it would lead to the demise of Iraq’s 2,000-year-old Christian community. Moreover, as Pope Francis warned, the prospects for peace in the larger region would be diminished.
Christianity embraces the teaching that every human being, irrespective of creed, is made in the image and likeness of God. It teaches that every human being is infinitely beloved by God and thus each person’s human dignity must be honored and protected. These are principles on which the broader Middle East, Sunni, Shia, Jews, Christians, Yazidis, Arabs, and Kurds can live in peace.
As the Holy Father declared in his homily during his visit to Iraq in March, “Today, I can see firsthand that the Church in Iraq is alive, and that Christ is alive and at work in this, His holy and faithful people.” Jesus Christ “strengthens us to resist the temptation to seek revenge,” and “promises us that, by the power of the Resurrection, He can raise us, and our communities, from the ruins left by injustice, division, and hatred.”
The Church in Iraq is alive today because Archbishop Warda discerned the call to save the Christian populations of Iraq and Syria and has worked mightily to do so. Funded by Aid to the Church in Need, Hungary Cares, the Knights of Columbus, USAID, and others, Archbishop Warda built refugee camps, schools, a hospital, and ultimately a university. The purpose of all this was most immediately to help the refugees, Christian and non-Christian alike. The long-term model he employed was a traditional Catholic one. By building and staffing high-quality primary schools, hospitals, a university, and other services, the Chaldean Catholic Church of Erbil is both making life better for the Christian community that remains, and through these services, earning the respect and gratitude of their non-Christian neighbors. Service to one’s neighbors for its own sake is wonderful; it is the very essence of the Christian life. Service designed to preserve the disappearing Christians is even more compelling.
The Christians we met in Iraq near universally agreed with the archbishop’s direction. Among them were Christians who had moved to the United States and Germany and were successful abroad but have now returned to Iraq to help rebuild. As one young man with a German engineering degree explained, “Germany was wonderful, but it wasn’t my home, it wasn’t my culture, and I felt the call to return.”
He and others we met were stunned that in Iraq, while it is still recovering from war, still suffering from pockets of sectarian violence, and hit hard by COVID, the minute Christian community brought a world leader of the stature of Pope Francis to visit. For Iraqis and guests alike, it was surreal to watch the popemobile bring Pope Francis into the Franso Hariri Stadium. Not only was the visit safe and effective, it was a joyous event for a people in need of joy.
In a far less public way, Franciscan University also is answering the call to save the Christian people of Iraq and Syria. We have one student teaching in Erbil already, four more are planning to follow, and a number of faculty are lining up, as well. While there is little that those from Franciscan can do to dramatically improve life for Iraq’s Christian community, in a small way such exchanges are indicative of a return to normalcy. They are an acknowledgement and an appreciation for a community that has offered joyful Christian witness for millennia, despite episodes of extreme suffering.
Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, is president of Franciscan University of Steubenville. Daniel R. Kempton is vice president for academic affairs and professor of political science, and Tiffany Boury is director of the M.A. in Catholic leadership program and associate professor of education at the university.
For more information on the Church in Iraq, visit https://www.stmiraq.org/.