Archbishop Bashar Warda is the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil in Iraq, and has long been an outspoken voice on behalf of Middle East Christianity. He recently spoke to Crux from Erbil about the Trump administration’s controversial executive order on refugees, including the idea of giving special preference to Christians and other minorities who have been victims of ISIS genocide. Following is the text of the interview:
CRUX: When the executive order was rolled out, your own upcoming trip to the United States was cancelled. What happened?
Warda: The main purpose for coming was for a Congressional hearing that was postponed. I hope to come soon and to testify on behalf of Christians in Iraq.
Do you agree that security concerns warrant the new U.S. refugee policy?
I don’t know what the president knows about security risks as they relate to the “countries of concern” and refugees from them.
I do know two things.
First, it is terrible to live with terrorism. My country lives with terrorism daily. And if the United States wants to have a strong vetting process, I can understand and appreciate that. Some people are quick to forget that Europe has tried to slow down the refugee flow too. The EU has done its best to keep the refugees in Turkey, and has paid Turkey to keep them there. Obviously, in the era of terrorism, people are concerned about who is entering their country and that is understandable.
Second, the Catholic Church is fundamentally on the side of immigrants, regardless of their faith or origin. This is a core part of who we are. So these are complex times in a brutal world. The real question is what is the obligation of the world community, not just the U.S., to all the innocent victims of this brutality. As the Church, especially here in Iraq, we are shepherds to the innocents, all of them - those who are migrating and those who are not.
I fear that all the media discussion on this travel issue will place the focus completely on those who are in the migration process, and forget those who are still attempting to live and survive in their legitimate homeland.
One other thing: Christians and other minorities have been largely ignored by the American government before now, so even if this step had a bumpy start and required clarification, we in Iraq appreciate that an American administration understands that we are here and wants to help the minorities here who have suffered so much.
Do you think this order will make it harder for Christians from Iraq?
Someone quoted me out of context on this in another article, so let me clarify it.
Obviously in certain individual cases in the short term, this could change the plans of those who were in the process of immigrating or traveling, but I understand several of our families with new immigrant visas have now been approved for travel just this week.
As long as this is understood as something available to all the minority communities of Iraq, and not just to the Christians, I do not think this will make it harder for us Christians here in Iraq. Obviously in the long run, it will make it easier for those from our community who wish to move to the West. And while I hope most of our people will stay, I must respect the decision they make for themselves, especially after what they have endured.
What do you make of the protests against President Trump’s refugee order?
Everyone, including the administration, seems to agree that this should have been implemented with more clarity. There was much confusion about what the order meant and many people were very upset.
From my perspective in Iraq, I wonder why all of these protesters were not protesting in the streets when ISIS came to kill Christians and Yazidis and other minority groups. They were not protesting when the tens of thousands of displaced Christians my archdiocese has cared for since 2014 received no financial assistance from the U.S. government or the U.N. There were no protests when Syrian Christians were only let in at a rate that was 20 times less than the percentage of their population in Syria.
I do not understand why some Americans are now upset that the many minority communities that faced a horrible genocide will finally get a degree of priority in some manner.
I would also say this, all those who cry out that this is a “Muslim Ban” - especially now that it has been clarified that it is not - should understand clearly that when they do this, they are hurting we Christians specifically and putting us at greater risk. The executive order has clearly affected Christians and Yazidis and others as well as Muslims.
Here in Iraq we Christians cannot afford to throw out words carelessly as the media in the West can do. I would ask those in the media who use every issue to stir up division to think about this. For the media these things become an issue of ratings, but for us the danger is real.
Most Americans have no concept of what it was like to live as a Yazidi or Christian or other minority as ISIS invaded. Our people had the option to flee, to convert, or to be killed, and many were killed in the most brutal ways imaginable. But there were none of these protests then of ISIS’s religious test.
Our people lost everything because of their faith - they were targeted for their faith, just like the Yazidis and others too. Now these protesters are saying that religion should not matter at all, even though someone was persecuted for their faith, even though persecution based on religion is one of the grounds for refugee status in the UN treaty on refugees.
From here I have to say, it is really unbelievable.
It is exactly this reasoning, that religion should not be a factor at all in American policy, that has resulted in Christians and other minority communities being overlooked by U.S. and UN aid programs. We are too small to matter, our communities are disappearing from constant persecution, and for years the American government didn’t care. Now when someone tries to help us, we have protesters telling us that there can be no religious basis for refugee status - even though the UN treaty and American law say that religious persecution is a major reason for granting the status, and even though ISIS targeted people primarily on the basis of religion.
I am not saying that any group should have a blanket preference when it comes to being admitted as a refugee in the United States. Such a policy would not be right, and would clearly be against our Catholic faith and teaching. And that is not the policy as I understand it.
But it is very hard for me to understand why comfortable people in the West think those who are struggling to survive against genocide, and whose communities are at extreme risk of disappearing completely, should not get some special consideration. We are an ancient people on the verge of extinction because of our commitment to our faith. Will anybody protest for us?
Do you think your people will take advantage of this priority status?
Clearly, I don’t want our Christian people to leave Iraq, because I hope our community will stay and thrive in its homeland, and contribute to the pluralism of a land Christians have called home for almost 2000 years. I think that a real Christian presence is critical to any future peace and reconciliation efforts here.
But that does not mean that I do not appreciate the effort and gesture the American government is making by giving priority to the most vulnerable people here. Remember, we have many thousands of Iraqi Christians, victims of ISIS, now trapped in other countries in the Middle East trying to get out to safety who do not even exist for the UN because they are afraid to enter the official refugee camps. This is a real problem.
Of those who are still here, I truly hope most of our people won’t seek asylum outside of Iraq, but I cannot stop them if they believe this is the only way they can have a life. The hardship and hopelessness, especially among the displaced people, is incredible. These people have lost everything on earth because of their faith in Jesus Christ. It is that simple.
They have kept their faith, but everything else has been taken from them. Everything.
What would you like to see changed in this executive order?
There needs to be a proper understanding and perception of what this means. Obviously there has been confusion about this and that isn’t good for anyone, including the administration. As other Christian leaders have noted, it is not good if people think there is priority only for the Christians. That could make us a target, but clearly we now know this is not the actual case with this policy.
This priority status was announced for all religious minorities in my country. That would include Yazidis and Mandaeans as well as Christians. It would have included Jews also, but Iraq already expelled almost all of its Jewish community decades ago.
In Syria, Shiite Muslims are a minority, and they were targeted by ISIS. So this isn’t only about the Christians. But there have been many injustices to the Christians and other minorities before now, especially with those from Syria having been largely excluded from entry to the United States since 2011.
I am happy an American president finally realizes there are Christians - and other religious minority groups - here who need help. This is an important step forward, and it means a good deal to the displaced people here. We have felt like we were forgotten by the United States until now.
What do your people need most from the American government?
The Christians of Iraq desperately need American government humanitarian aid now, and we need it to be delivered in a manner to ensure it actually reaches us and does not get absorbed and redirected in the existing aid structures.
My archdiocese hosts the largest community of displaced Christians in my country, and since 2014, we have received no money from the United States government and no money from the UN. We have hosted and cared for all of these displaced people on our own, with funds we raised privately on our own, nearly all of it from private Christian charitable groups. We are talking about housing, food, medicine, and schools. We have done all of this, and are continuing to do so.
I should say also that we are not just taking care of Christian IDPs. We have taken in many Yazidi families in our programs, and our medical clinics serve large numbers of Muslim IDP patients. As of today, we will run out of money for many of these programs in three months. For medicines, we have only two months’ reserve left, and we are serving many thousands of IDPs - Christians, Muslims and Yazidis. Our small staff is busy night and day working to find these funds, but we have been doing this for almost three years and many of our private donors are reaching their limits.
While the U.S. has donated generously to the overall humanitarian aid effort in Iraq, almost none of this aid reached the Christians. We are told by some that they cannot give us money because we are a Church. I have two things to say about this.
First, we have been advised by members of U.S. Congress that U.S. law does not prohibit Church organizations from receiving humanitarian funds, it only prohibits the use of proselytizing with those funds. As I just stated, we serve Yazidis and Muslims already and treat them with dignity and respect for who they are. And as Catholics, we are always respecting of all faiths.
Second, I think we have also delivered aid to the IDPs in a way that is far more efficient and effective than these other “official” aid organizations. Our staff are members of the Church, missionaries and volunteers, doing this work because we believe we are called to it. But under the previous administration, the Americans, and the UN, were applying a rigid formula that blocked the Church from receiving aid to help take care of our IDPs, while also denying aid to our IDPs directly because, in the view of the UN, we the Church were already taking care of them.
Imagine the frustration we have felt about this! And there was no outrage about this. Iraqi Christians celebrated when Trump won, because they hoped the American government would finally care about them after years of neglect by your government.
Why is it that Americans only use a religious test to prevent minority groups who are genocide survivors from getting aid, or to prevent them from getting any kind of priority assistance based on the needs of their communities? Here, we do not understand this.
Beyond this, because they are still displaced and will be for many more months, perhaps years, our people need aid to survive. Because their homes and villages were often destroyed by ISIS, they desperately need U.S. financial assistance to rebuild. Because the security situation is so complicated, they need meaningful security guarantees. And they need the U.S. government to insist that religious minorities get the same rights as citizens that every other citizen in Iraq gets, because right now, we do not get those same rights.
What is your impression of President Trump so far?
I am not a politician and I do not offer political endorsements, but on the issues that affect my people directly, I can say that I am pleased that an American president is focused on the plight of small religious communities - including the Christians - in Iraq. In many ways, this gives us a renewed hope for the future that we are not alone and abandoned by the West and by the United States, which was the common belief here up until now.