Last week I was in northern Iraq studying the work of World Vision and other Christian aid organizations in response to the refugee crisis in the Middle East. While there I spent time with a young priest who opened my eyes to the reality that when it comes to terrorism, not only do denominational lines not matter much, they might very well fade away when dealing with the realities of life inside a war zone.
The Rev. Daniel Alkhari, a 25-year-old Chaldean priest, ministers in a refugee camp in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. The camp is home to more 800 Iraqi Christians who have been displaced by the self-described Islamic State in recent years. The church inside the camp hosts services each weekend in three Christian faith traditions – Roman Catholic, Chaldean, and Assyrian — and the ministers of each tradition are responsive to the needs of all.
“ISIS has done better than almost any group in the past two millennia in bringing Christians together in this region,” Alkhari told me. “To them, a Christian is a Christian. This common threat has unified our different traditions.”
And Alkhari has a strong ally in Rome.
Pope Francis has spoken repeatedly of an “ecumenism of blood” that is bringing Christians together in the Middle East under the common threat of religious persecution.
“[Today’s martyrs in the Middle East] are witnesses to Jesus Christ, and they are persecuted and killed because they are Christians,” Pope Francis said in January. “Those who persecute them make no distinction between the religious communities to which they belong. They are Christians and for that they are persecuted.”
Nonetheless, Alkhari expressed hope that a common person — rather than a common enemy — could bring his Eastern rite community and the Catholic community together.
“It shouldn’t be this way,” he said. “All the Churches should be united in the person of Jesus Christ.”
While Alkhari’s hopes are noble, theological ecumenism between the Churches that derive their founding from the first apostles of Jesus, such as those represented in the refugee camp here, has been a slow project since its zenith shortly after the Second Vatican Council.
Though advances have been made, it seems that instead of beginning with theology, a “practical ecumenism” that forces faith communities to confront shared problems in the world together is the best way forward.
The best recent example is the work between the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church on caring for God’s creation.
Pope Francis worked very closely with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on his groundbreaking June encyclical Laudato Si’. The patriarch was even on hand in Rome to help unveil the encyclical to the world, a first for the Vatican.
Then, following Bartholomew’s lead, Francis declared that the Church would celebrate the World Day of Prayer for Care of Creation the first day of every September.
Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Catholic leader of Erbil, Iraq, told me that this kind of practical ecumenism plays out daily in his ministry.
“The refugee crisis has reminded me that I’m the bishop of all Erbil. I am called to minister to everyone — not just Catholics. We try to serve anyone who comes looking for help,” he said.
The threat ISIS brings isn’t just fatal to individual Christians, but to the entire Christian community in the Middle East. The ongoing persecution of Christians in the region could lead to the disappearance of the Church there.
Warda believes that there is one particular way that outcome be avoided.
“There is no political solution left here,” he said. “We must stop ISIS’ slaughter in the region, even if it requires more substantial military intervention from western nations. The United States must begin taking some responsibility for the Middle East. That’s probably the only way to stop the bloodshed.”
With or without more substantial Western intervention, Warda still feels responsible for shepherding his flock.
One question he often hears, which crosses all religious boundaries, is “Where is God in the crisis?”
“God is walking with you in your sufferings” Warda tells refugees. And the archbishop is as well. He said no matter how conditions get, he’ll never abandon the people in his community.
“Catholic. Chaldean. Assyrian. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m a priest and bishop,” he said. “I will minister to God’s people no matter how bad it gets here.”
That’s practical ecumenism at work, and perhaps the greatest hope for the future of Christianity in the Middle East.