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Iraqi Archbishop Looks For Reconciliation


As the battle to take back the Iraqi city of Mosul rages on, the leader of the Islamic State released a dramatic audio message - the war is yours. Turn the dark night of infidels into day. That so far unverified message is the sort of thinking that inspired many of Mosul's residents to flee when ISIS seized the city more than two years ago.

Among them, more than 100,000 Christians, including many from the surrounding villages who, centuries ago, were required to pay a tax to remain Christian when the ruling Muslims arrived. One man who is key to Iraq's Chaldean Catholic Church is Bashar Warda, archbishop from the nearby city of Erbil. He spoke to us via Skype as he, too, kept up with the fighting in Mosul.

BASHAR WARDA: Yes. Yes, we are following every day the news as well as we are following some of the videos and photographs that being sent from our Christian villages every day from people who are visiting these sites.

MONTAGNE: Now that they've been liberated.

Is there any image or any moment that struck you?

WARDA: I would say that being in a church and raising the cross again it's a momento of victory. And this is a momento that really has strengthened the hope that, yes, this evil will be defeated.

MONTAGNE: Would it have been possible for the Christians to have stayed inside the city or even in their villages? Was there any way for them to coexist when ISIS was running things?

WARDA: No, it's enslavement. It's enslavement. Some people would say, well, why you don't - did not pay the jizya and that's it? Not the jizya...

MONTAGNE: That's the tax. That's the tax.

WARDA: Yeah. No, the jizya, the taxation, it's not - some people would think wrongly that paying the taxation would save the Christians - not at all. I mean, it's better to be without property but with dignity. It's better to be without a job and house, but still you keep your dignity. So it's about being a Christian and being fully human.

MONTAGNE: Could you just give us a small definition? The tax that would have been levied on a Christian who wanted to stay and live under the Islamic state - what would that tax be?

WARDA: In the seventh century when the Arabs came, they have this condition - Islam or you could stay in the land of Islam, but you have to pay a jizya, which is taxation, money that we'd be giving every month to the ruler of the area.

And this taxation also, jizya, have been widened to include different issues, like, for example, in the eighth or ninth century, it was forbidden for a Christian to build a house higher than the house of a Muslim. It was forbidden for a Christian to ride a horse; he should ride a donkey. It was forbidden for Christians, for example, to walk alongside a Muslim.

All these procedures were added to this taxation, and these conditions were left, I think, even in the 14th century, 15th century. None of the people start talking about a jizya anymore because they knew that it's a counterfeit statements.

MONTAGNE: So they were bringing it all back in the 21st century?

WARDA: Yes, yeah.

MONTAGNE: Well, the Christians in Iraq - and especially many of them were in Mosul and in villages around Mosul - they have, though, for centuries, lived peacefully at least with their Muslim neighbors. How much damage has been done to those relationships with the coming of ISIS?

WARDA: Yeah - there is now a mistrust, I have to tell you. People are a bit worried about how they are going to go back into Mosul and live with neighbors who betrayed them. There are also some stories of, for example, neighbors who tried to protect the property but they were forbidden by the Islamic State because, you know, each - all of the houses were marked by this letter nun, which it mean Nasrani, Nazareth.

MONTAGNE: Meaning Christian.

WARDA: Christian houses. But we have to remind and rebuild the whole trust relationship again. I mean, I think that this is one of the tasks upon the church and the churches to do. I would say that our people will be reluctant for us to go outside Mosul before really having been assured that at least there is the basic trust.

MONTAGNE: Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were something like 2 to 2.5 million Christians in Iraq. And there are now fewer than 300,000 - these are rough numbers. You have suggested that the U.S. has a moral responsibility to help those Chaldeans who are left, given that this was a U.S.-led invasion.

WARDA: Not suggested - I do believe that the Americans have a moral responsibility concerning Iraq, as a whole country. They have to finish the job. They have to be really - because they promised that they'd come and bring democracy. OK. We have also our own responsibility. I'm not blaming the Americans of all the mess, but the mess is there. I mean, we cannot deny what's happened to the country.

I mean, there is a mess, and there are a lot of political divisions, which is affecting the lives of the innocent people, not just the Christians - Christians, Yazidis, Muslims, so Shia, Sunnah, Kurds - everyone has been affected by the whole situation which is happening now in Iraq. So this is the moral responsibility that we say, well, you have to finish the job. You have to act. It's time for actions.

MONTAGNE: Bashar Warda is archbishop of Erbil, speaking to us from Erbil in northern Iraq.

Thank you so much for joining us.

WARDA: Thank you. God bless you all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.