IRAQ (ACN News): Christians in one corner of Iraq have trebled in number over the past 15 years, according to a leading bishop who is grappling with an influx of people escaping persecution and oppression.
Christians in Ankawa, a suburb of the Kurdish capital Erbil, have increased from more than 8500 in the mid-1990s to more than 25,500 today.
Of those, up to 1500 have arrived within the past year.
Many of them fled after the siege of the Syrian Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad on October 31 last year when 58 people were killed and more than 70 were injured in an attack during Sunday evening Mass.
Christians arriving in Ankawa have fled not only from the Iraqi capital but from all across the country – Mosul in the north, Kirkuk in the north-east, and even Basra in the extreme south.
Giving his assessment of the displacement of Christians in Iraq, Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need about the huge challenge of helping people arriving in Ankawa.
“Many Christians arrive in Ankawa very poor. They need jobs, they need decent health care and they need good homes,” he said.
The archbishop said many were attracted by the relative safety of the Kurdish north and had come to Ankawa because of its high proportion of Christians.
Underlining the need to support Christians, Archbishop Warda said recently a Catholic primary school had opened its doors for the first time.
Back in January, Archbishop Warda got local government support for a plan to secure two plots of land to build a 100-bed hospital and a university.
But the archbishop said there was still a huge amount of work ahead.
“The people demand a great deal from the Church. We are doing our best to help them,” he said.
“They are our beloved people and it is our mission to help them but sometimes we feel the pressure is very great.”
Archbishop Warda said many Christians arriving in Ankawa thought of it as a stop-off en route to eventual emigration to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
In the past decade, the number of Christians in Iraq have plummeted from 800,000 to perhaps as few as 150,000 – many of them forced out by a series of killings, kidnappings, verbal and physical violence, attacks on Christians businesses and homes – many of them acts of religious intolerance.
The archbishop stressed that the Church wanted to encourage Christians to stay in Iraq.
“It is the wish of everyone that people will stay in our country,” he said.
“All our efforts and strategies are aimed at reducing the phenomenon of emigration.”
Describing the people as “very strong in their faith”, Archbishop Warda stressed the pastoral demands of coping with too few churches and a shortage of priests and catechists.
“At present we only have three churches in the Ankawa area. Some-times, the churches are so full, people are forced to stand outside,” he said. Archbishop Warda has plans for a new church in Ankawa.
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
The Catholic Leader acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of this country and especially acknowledge the traditional owners on whose lands we live and work throughout the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane.