A group of American religious leaders recently returned from a November fact-finding trip to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq shared what they learned and analyzed the challenges for Christians and other religious minorities in the region at a Dec. 5 conference in Washington, D.C.
The Nov. 4-10 exploratory trip was sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion of The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and is part of the law school’s broader study of religious minorities in the Middle East.
Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington, D.C., led the delegation to the Kurdish region of Iraq. The Americans met with Christian leaders and parishioners throughout Iraqi Kurdistan to assess the state of the traditional Christian community in the region and the growing population of Christians who have moved to the region from elsewhere in Iraq.
“I had no idea there were two Iraqs,” said A. Larry Ross (left), a trip participant who founded A. Larry Ross Communications, one of the nation’s best-known firms in Christian-focused public relations.
“Kurdistan is a success story that is still being told. The faith community there is a bouquet of flowers ready to bloom,” he said.
Those who had recently visited the area were among many scholars, clerics, and policy experts who spoke at the follow-up conference, held at the Government Printing Office building.
Speakers addressed a variety of topics, including the history of Christianity in Iraq, legal analysis of the Nineveh Plain questions, and the effect on religious freedom of the proposed Kurdistan Regional Government constitution.
Fresh from a busy week of personal visits to schools and churches in Kurdistan and many face-to-face meetings, the trip’s participants offered divergent forecasts for the fate of the Christian population in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
Overall, Iraq’s Christians are holding their own, but are isolated and lack support from the outside world, said experts.
“Without support, there could be a Christian diaspora from Kurdistan,” predicted His Excellency Bashar Warda (left), Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, who spent time with the American visitors in November and addressed the conference via prerecorded video.
Dr. Carole O’Leary, a trip member and visiting scholar with the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion, agreed that increased contact is vital.
“There are young women in Kurdistan who want to be astronauts. But Christians can’t survive there if they can’t survive along with others,” O’Leary said.
Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, dean of The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, was also among the American religious leaders who went to Kurdistan. Kowalski saw an opportunity for the United States to rehabilitate its image in a nation that has frequently been antagonistic toward it.
“As Americans there is very good work we could be doing in Iraq that is redemptive,” he said.
Voicing the thoughts of many, another speaker concluded that “Without Kurdistan there would be no Christians in Iraq. We need to make Kurdistan a model of democracy.”
Introductory remarks for the day’s discussion were given by John H. Garvey, President, The Catholic University of America; John Desrocher, Director, Office of Iraq Affairs, U.S. Department of State; and Professor Robert A. Destro, Director, Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion, The Catholic University of America.