ERBIL — Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil at the Chaldean cathedral in the Kurdistan Region’s capital, says the decision by Pope Francis to hold a mass in Erbil and not other places is a message itself.
During an interview with BasNews on March 2, three days before the historic papal visit to Iraq and Kurdistan Region, Archbishop Warda said the pontiff carries the message of brotherhood wherever he goes in Iraq, but here in Erbil he will also pay tribute to the hospitality of Kurdistan Region for taking in millions of refugees and IDPs, including Christians, during hard times.
[Below is the transcript of the interview which was edited for clarity]
BasNews: What is the importance of his Holiness Pope’s visit for Iraq, the Kurdistan Region, and especially for the Christians here?
Archbishop Bashar Warda: Firstly, he is coming to Iraq with the message of “We are all brothers”. When you look at his schedule, you can see that he is not coming specifically for the Christians, but he will be visiting so many places where Christians do not exist, but at least to tell the people that “we are all brothers”.
He will start from the land of Abraham, going to Ur in Nasiriyyah where we have Ziggurat of Ur. When we read the Bible, we read that Abraham left Ur of the Chaldeans and that’s where he strats the journey of faith. Bear in mind that the Jews, Christians, Muslims, they all respect Abraham. So these peoples are all brothers, but his holiness the Pope will make it clear that “I am your brother as well”. What I mean is that his visit is not only for the Christians, but he will visit Ur, then Najaf, where he will meet with Sistani, who is a respected figure as well for his position on many issues since 2003, to ensure the messages of peace during critical times.
Within that program, he will have a special event for the Christians because it is still one of the main tasks to be close to the Christian community who suffered a lot. And actually coming to Erbil in itself is a message. The whole international community is now asking “why Erbil?”. With the visit, the story will be told why Erbil and what Kurdistan has done during critical times since 2003 for Christians and for all. In 2014, we had around 4 million IDPs from Mosul, Anbar, Tikrit. After IS overran Mosul and Nineveh Plains, here in Ankawa we received 13,200 families. Some people ask why Erbil and not Alqosh for example where you have a very historical Christian presence, why not Zakho, why not Dohuk? Why not celebrating the Mass in Mosul for example? And you know that for us as Catholic Christians the Mass is the core of our Christian belief. So celebrating the Mass in Erbil firstly shows that security is here, and a good presence of the Christians is here in Erbil. Ainkawa, for example, is the largest Christian community in the Middle East gathered in one enclave.
BasNews: So can we interpret that the visit is also a tribute to the Kurdistan Region for its hospitality during the hard times faced by the Christians and others?
Archbishop Bashar Warda: Yes, could be, because people and the international media would be made aware of why so many Christians are here. Then we could tell the story of peaceful coexistence here, and we could tell the story of government initiatives and efforts to foster this diversity. The government of Kurdistan was not just welcoming these people, but it was part of the preparations. So the world would see from where it is being celebrated. It is not being celebrated from a church, but from a stadium which is a public place and it was made at the disposal of this event.
BasNews: Speaking of the preparations, how the preparations are going here in Kurdistan?
Archbishop Bashar Warda: Good. Our teams have completed the registration of the people, because you know that due to the COVID-19 regulations we had to reduce the number of attendees from 40,000 to 10,000 only. We had to prepare for social distancing, sanitization, granting special cars and special tickets, traveling will be strictly for those registered, masks. This is an open field and it gives kind of assurance that no one will be at risk.
BasNews: PM Masrour Barzani recently said security personnels are on alert, and that everything is going as planned. How the security part of the event is handled?
Archbishop Bashar Warda: Yes, we had three meetings with the security personnels, and everything is going smoothly, and that would make the trip to the stadium as easy as possible. You know that moving 10,000 people is not easy because you will need busses, you need checking, and everything has been taken into consideration. Hopefully we will make it as easy as possible for everyone.
BasNews: How many people have so far registered to attend the Mass?
Archbishop Bashar Warda: We have completed registering the 10,000 people.
BasNews: Apart from the Christians in Kurdistan and Iraq, are there people coming from other countries?
Archbishop Bashar Warda: We had requests from Christians in Iran, Turkey, and Syria, but probably they will not make it due to the pandemic regulations. We are hoping that we could make it possible for the people from Syria to come for the event.
BasNews: the Pope will visit Najaf to meet with Ali al-Sistani who, as you mentioned, is respected by many Iraqis. What is the message and will there be any declarations signed during the meeting?
Archbishop Bashar Warda: He will not engage in any political events and he will not have any political messages. You know that the Catholic Church has started this inter-religious dialogue many years ago and we have a special commission for that. He himself, his Holiness, signed the memorandum of declaration of brotherhood in Abu Dhabi with the Shikh of al Azhar. And I think this meeting is also to continue that effort because you know that we have a large number of Shia in Iraq, and everyone has respect for Ayatollah, so it should be read within this framework.
Again, this could be the message of “we are all brothers”. When we say ‘we are all brothers’ during so many challenges, that conveys the message that brothers will solve issues and preserve their home when they are together. That’s the message that he carries wherever he goes.
BasNews: Kurdistan Region hopes that the papal visit will also help world to better realize what it has done for so many refugees and IDPs, including the Christians. Do you think it will lead to more international support?
Archbishop Bashar Warda: Yes. As for helping the Christian IDPs, I would say that the international community and international churches have been a big support, and that is because traveling to Kurdistan, getting permission to enter Erbil and traveling though Erbil, Duhok, and Sulaymaniyah was easy… These helped the international NGOs to come here and spend their dollars while being aware of where they are spent; because if you know where funds go, then you can raise funds better.
I think that when he will come, we will tell the story, just like what we are doing now… and his visit will attract and direct the attention of the world to this peaceful part of the troubled Middle East, which has become a model for others.
BasNews: What is the specifics of his schedule in the Kurdistan Region, especially with regards to meetings with the Kurdish officials?
Archbishop Bashar Warda: He will have closed meetings with the president and prime minister of Kurdistan at the airport before heading to Mosul.