With reconstruction efforts for Christian villages on Iraq’s Nineveh Plains moving full steam ahead, the list of needs – from house and church repairs to infrastructure such as roads, water and electricity – has only grown longer, meaning there’s also an increased need for support.

In villages such as Qaraqosh, Karamless and Teleskof, reconstruction efforts are being managed entirely by the Church through the “Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project,” organized and led by local churches on the ground and supported by donors such as the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus.

(The Knights of Columbus are a principal partner of Crux.)

However, while the Church has done an astonishing job at leading the charge, there are even bigger needs that Erbil’s Chaldean Catholic Archbishop, Bashar Warda, say go beyond the Church’s means.

“The problem of displaced people is also a government problem – it needs funds, it needs committees, it needs ministries,” Warda said.

Bypassing the system

Speaking to Crux, Warda said infrastructure repairs such as roads, electricity and water are “outside the financial capacity [of the Church]. How to renovate the electricity system? It’s beyond what we can do. The same with sewage and water supply.”

The Church could help provide temporary or transitional solutions such as generators, but for the country to really get back on its feet, both the Iraqi and other international governments need to chip in, he said.

However, Warda said that from the beginning of the crisis, when ISIS forces first launched their offensive on the Nineveh Plains in 2014, there has been no support from the government, with the excuse that there was “a lack of funds, a lack of interest, a lack of experience.”

Warda said there has also been little help from international bodies such as the United Nations, which he said got involved for the first three months but withdrew because refugee camps built by the Church were too “professional” to need their assistance.

“Everything was left to the Church to deal with, and we thank God we have done our best,” he said, noting that from his understanding, the Iraqi government has been “begging for money” from several countries, and each time has come back empty-handed.

The reason, Warda said, is corruption.

“That’s why we’ve seen at least some of the big countries are reluctant to give a penny to the Iraqi government, because of corruption.”

According to Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, Iraq ranks an abysmal 169th in the world for transparency, finishing ahead of only 11 nations including North Korea, Libya and Somalia.

In tandem with those nations, the study found, Iraq “suffers from weak public institutions, internal conflict and deep instability. Such situations allow corruption to become rife with little to no checks on official abuse. Amid ongoing violence, as well as internal wars and conflicts, all forms of good governance have eroded.”

According to the report of a parliamentary commission in May, $320 billion has been lost over the last 15 years in Iraq due to corruption. To put that in context, $320 billion is almost twice the country’s entire GDP.

This is ultimately why some governments, such as Hungary, have chosen to deal directly with villages, rather than going through the Iraqi central government, Warda said.

As examples he pointed to Karamless, where rebuilding has largely been backed by the Knights of Columbus, and Teleskof, where the Hungarian government donated more than $2 million to support the return of some 1,000 families.

In both of these cases, going around the system and engaging directly with local leadership, who in the Christian villages are mainly priests, has worked out far better, he said.

“Bypass the UN, bypass the central government. It worked with the Hungarian government, it worked with the Knights of Columbus, I think it could work if there is a willingness,” Warda said. “It could give you good roads, a good hospital, a good clinic, a good school, because that is what the people need.”

Precisely that kind of work-around has been promised by the Trump administration. Vice President Mike Pence pledged both in January and again in June that the United States would direct at least some humanitarian relief funding in Iraq away from large UN-sponsored programs, putting it directly in the hands of Christians and other persecuted communities.

Yet the leaders of those Christian communities say that to date, none of that promised assistance has actually reached them, leading them to ask where the money is actually ending up.

Entrepreneurship as a way of thriving, not surviving

With many Iraqi families contemplating moving abroad due to an economic crisis where salaries are often unpaid, basic services are poor in quality and there is a lack of jobs, especially among youth, Warda has tried to meet the challenge with entrepreneurship.

Not only does he run a well-attended university with faculties in accounting, economy, law, computer science, and next year hopefully architecture and dentistry, he also runs four schools and is planning to open the brand-new Maryamana hospital, which he hopes will bring jobs to some 100-150 people and provide ongoing formation for new graduates and foreign exchange opportunities with other Chaldean universities.

Interior shot of a new Catholic hospital under construction in Erbil. (Credit: Elise Harris/Crux.)

Construction on the original complex, which was intended to be a shopping mall, began in 2012, but those plans were halted in 2014 when displaced persons fleeing ISIS poured into the unfinished structure and made it a makeshift home.

Once they left, Warda decided to turn it into a hospital, given the poor quality and far distance of other medical facilities in the area. He enlisted the help of a Spanish architect who specializes in converting properties into hospital spaces and hopes to have the facility running by January 2019.

The hospital will have 65 patient beds, 5 delivery beds, 12 paediatric beeds, 7 ICU beds, 2 emergency clinics, 15 clinics, 7 operating rooms and 100-150 doctors, nurses and other medical personnel on staff. It will be a private hospital open to people from all faiths.

Warda said he also wants to bring in doctors from Baghdad and new graduates. He also wants to create continued research and study opportunities for new graduates and open collaboration with doctors from abroad, in both the United States, Australia and also Britain.

While most people on the Nineveh Plains are probably thinking in terms of mere survival, Warda said that for him, “it would be thriving…that’s the difference.

“For me it is not just to survive…to survive means drink and eat and that’s it, but for me, how to think in the future? How to help Christians to think ahead and give them hope that they would have a good job, a good hospital, a good university, to have a good school for your kids, that’s the way it should be.”

Doing this, he said, would also allow Christians to make a meaningful impact on society, because the schools and hospitals “are not meant just for Christians, they are also meant for Muslims, so this would also boost the dialogue of life. That’s needed in this situation.”

Though he is uncertain whether the bridges built through projects such as the hospital would really make a dent in restoring the trust that has been lost, Warda said “there is no other way than to try.”

“I’m not saying we will be successful, but I have to try. In the future if anyone ever tells me about projects or initiatives to help bridge communities, I’ll go for it. Because there is no other way. To stand, and to separate and to isolate yourself, to enclose yourself, this would not really be the way Jesus wants us,” he said, adding that to be a Christian is also shown in how you act toward those around you.

‘Re-education’ needed to re-establish trust

In Warda’s opinion, the rise of ISIS “is a complete failure of Iraqi education.” And unless the model is reconsidered, the country can expect to see more of the same in terms of general attitude and cultural mentality.

Noting there were some four million Muslims displaced by ISIS alongside the 125,000 Christians from the Nineveh Plains, Warda said that for him, “it’s a pity, I feel really sorry for them and I have to do something.”

But unless there are local examples of Christians and Muslims successfully working together, it won’t happen, he said.

“Not in America, not in Europe, but here…we need something here, on the spot, in a land that was effected by this cancer, Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic name for ISIS.

Even though ISIS has been defeated, “it’s still there,” he said. “Daesh is still there, but the mentality is still there,” and the way to eliminate them “is not just fighting to stop Daesh, but to start educating people on a different level.”

Weighing in on the topic, Sister Marie Therese, head of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Iraq and headmistress of the school they run in Qaraqosh, said a new education system is desperately needed in the country, “because the mind of Iraqis has changed to bad, they need to be re-educated.”

In the three years that ISIS was at large, hatred was sown among Christians and Muslims alike, she said, saying “this needs to change.”

Noting that her order’s first convent in Iraq was established in Mosul, Therese said the small portion of Christian families who remain recently asked them to go back to establish a school. However, it is an impossible invitation to accept, not only because their convent has been destroyed, but because “the area of our convent is full of Daesh, still.”

“It is in the mind first, so we need to work hard with the people,” she said, saying that there are some who appreciate their work, including a secondary school for girls they run in Baghdad, which is 90 percent Muslim.

However, private operations they run, such as hospitals, are facing increasing pressure from the government not only because they are “jealous” of private entities, but “they want money,” she said.

“This is the change in the mind of Iraqis, just asking for money. [Before] they were more polite, not like now,” she said, noting that she first began to see a change in 1992, after the Gulf War. Having spent some 30 years serving in Baghdad, Therese said Muslims “were very educated and open and respected us, even the government, even Saddam. I can say that. But now, everything has changed.”

In Warda’s view, there is currently a calm in tensions, because people “are shocked” by what happened with ISIS, however, there is an increasing distrust not just among Christians and Muslims, but also between citizens and their government.

Deadly protests against poverty and unemployment in the south of Iraq in recent weeks, he said, are the result of “a lack of trust in the government, a lack of trust in the system that they say is a complete failure: corruption, fanatics.”

Even up until 2010 protests of this magnitude were not seen, Warda said, because “people were different. Today they are fed up, they need something different.”

“In Mosul, Daesh is there, but you have another Daesh which is corruption. So, I think people are calling for change and we have to do it ourselves,” he said, noting that it will take some time, “but do we have another way? No.”


This article was updated at 7:15p.m. in Rome with further information about the Maryamana hospital.