ANKAWA, Iraq – Few Western bishops these days are building either new universities or hospitals, mostly because they don’t have either the money or people to justify it. In the case of hospitals, any movement is usually in the opposite direction by selling them off.
If a Western bishop were to put up a university or hospital, however, it would at least be a fairly recognized and accepted thing for him to do. Imagine the reaction, however, if a bishop proudly announced that, in addition to all that, he was also putting up a boutique 30-bed hotel and a strip mall, both of which will turn a tidy profit for the church.
The howls of “scam” and “scandal” would probably be loud enough to deafen entire neighborhoods. After all, while there are plenty of exalted titles that come with being a Catholic bishop, “mogul” isn’t usually on the list.
Yet in the Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq, that’s exactly what the deeply entrepreneurial Archbishop Bashar Warda is doing, and here he’s hailed as a visionary – because everyone knows that in the context of today’s Iraq, what he’s doing isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme but more akin to a survival strategy.
He is, in effect, a “mogul for the martyrs,” determined to ensure that a suffering church won’t just survive here but actually thrive.
“My community needs a lot of jobs,” Warda explained on Thursday as he showed me around the construction site of his new hotel, slated to open in September.
“Most Christians who have left Iraq have done so because of wars, sanctions, persecutions, and sectarian violence, and I can’t control any of that,” he said. “But if they have a good job, at least they’ll think twice before leaving.”
Warda’s fear of an exodus isn’t idle. From a Christian population of 1.5 million before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, today the total number of Christians left in the country is perhaps 300,000, and some believe it’s lower than that.
Why should I stay here?
While the reasons for that out-migration are many, most boil down to what I was told by 20-year-old Rashel Groo, a computer science student at Ankawa’s new Catholic University.
“If I could find a good job here to build a life, maybe,” she said. “But why should I stay here without that?”
Groo also cited another factor: “There are more opportunities for women abroad,” she said. “Here the culture is more close-minded.”
Groo, in a sense, is the uphill climb Warda faces: She represents the best and brightest of the next generation of Chaldean Catholics here, a talented and ambitious young person who simply doesn’t believe she’ll be given full range for those gifts unless she goes abroad.
(The good news for the archbishop, however, is that three of Groo’s friends say their preference is to stay, though none is truly sure that’s going to be possible.)
In his relentless efforts to stem the tide, Warda’s gambling not just on spiritual care but economic development – trying to prime the local economic pump by giving Christians opportunities to find jobs and run businesses, thus giving them a sense that a decent life here isn’t just a pipe dream.
Seeking the next opportunity
In going about it, Warda displays the business savvy of a venture capitalist, always looking for the next opportunity to exploit.
For instance, he explained Thursday that back in the day, the archdiocese owned vast tracts of land for agricultural use. For thorny legal reasons, however, its ownership wasn’t absolute, and the state can confiscate the land more or less at will, with a deal leaving the archdiocese just 20 percent of the land but with absolute ownership rights.
The result was a patchwork of small plots scattered across the archdiocese, none of which was large enough individually to build anything. In 2010, when real estate values in Erbil hit a peak, Warda had the bright idea of consolidating all those small plots and selling them off as a package, which netted $7 million.
That money allowed him to launch the hospital and hotel complex, with donors covering all the rest of the costs. In turn, therefore, when the $1.3 million hotel opens, all its income will go straight into the coffers of the archdiocese, allowing him to expand both the university’s physical campus and its range of offerings.
(It’s to be called the “St. Joseph Residence,” by the way, complete with a restaurant and bar, and Warda cheerfully advises that bookings are still available for opening night.)
Life without a mogul
Lest one think such commercial exuberance is over-the-top, it’s worth getting a sense of what life is like here for a Christian who doesn’t have someone like Warda at their back.
Adnan Ablahad is an Assyrian Orthodox Christian from the city of Mosul, who’s currently living with wife, two sons, and several of their grandchildren in the last displaced person camp in Ankawa, called Ashti II. At its peak it offered a temporary home to thousands fleeing ISIS, but today it’s dwindled to just a few families and is slated to close in July.
Ablahad told me his family has “no hope” of returning to Mosul, no money, and no idea where to go when Ashti II closes its doors. He’s hoping to be able to emigrate to Europe or America but has no clue of how to get there.
I asked if his church offers him any assistance, and he bitterly insists, more than once, “Nothing!”
Ablahad told the story of needing a surgery and approaching the Orthodox archbishop last year for assistance, only to be informed, as he tells the story, that nothing could be done.
“They give no hope at all to the people,” he said, sneering, “just favors to people who are close to the guys in charge,” meaning the politicians running today’s Kurdish regional government.
Warda, on the other hand, is always on the prowl for the next deal, and can seem downright peeved when something gets in his way.
He takes me outside the hotel project, for example, and points to the American consulate that lies just across a narrow street.
“A car bomb went off here in April 2015, and the Americans closed the street,” he said. “That cost the church $27,000 a month, because all of our shops on the other side of the street had to be shut down.”
It turns out the archdiocese owned a series of storefronts opposite the consulate whose owners paid monthly rents, and now couldn’t afford them because they didn’t have any customers any more. A quick dash of math suggests that American security measures cost Warda almost $324,000 a year for the last three years, or almost $1 million in total.
A willingness to challenge God
So how has Warda responded? Not by ruing his bad luck, but rather by finding another location for his strip mall – one near the new university, which will have the side benefit of expanding foot traffic in the area and helping it become more prosperous, adding value to the real estate he now owns.
“The church depends on that income,” he said, saying it’s a matter of policy they don’t charge anything for weddings, funerals or other sacraments, and they have almost no other funding to pay for priests’ salaries and other routine operating expenses.
Warda’s non-stop drive and creativity is the stuff of legend here, and he doesn’t hesitate when asked where it all comes from.
“This is my call. I have to do what needs to be done today, period,” he said. “I think – no, I know – there are always ways to get it done, so rather than moaning and crying, you have to look and see where the doors to walk through are.”
Another secret to success, he said, is a willingness to “challenge God.”
“I sometimes say to him, ‘You’d better give me a solution,’” Warda said, “If you don’t, I’ll go and find it myself.”
One reason Warda has been able to build so much, so fast, is that construction costs here are stunningly low by Western standards. In part, that’s because there’s a vast supply of under-employed workers, and also because basic materials are fairly inexpensive. A reasonably spacious home for a family of five or six can be rebuilt after being gutted by ISIS in less than three months for around $10,000, both of which would be miracles in virtually any Western housing market.
Still, most of the growth boom has to do with Warda’s moxie.
When I ask how much he expects to clear each month in profit from the hotel, he confesses he has no idea, smiles, and says, “I don’t really know much about business.”
The casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that if all this is Warda not knowing much, God help his competition when he really figures it out.