ERBIL, Iraq – Iraq’s Christian community, still struggling to pick up the pieces of a genocidal ISIS campaign to wipe them from their ancestral homeland, are speaking up against Pope Francis and the Vatican for not doing enough to support their struggle for survival.
“We have actually been weakened by the stance taken by the Vatican,” Aziz Emmanuel al-Zebari, 68, a Chaldean political candidate, community leader and professor at the Catholic University of Erbil (CUE), told Fox News in a recent interview. “The Vatican is teaching the community to be submissive. That won’t help us get our rights."
In the view of Zebari and other Christians, the Pope’s repeated emphasis on a greater tolerance for and understanding of Islam has left the deeply persecuted Chaldean minority feeling insecure and vulnerable. It has also sparked internal divide between those who follow the Pope's guidance and others – like Zebari – who insist their survival rests on being much more outspoken.
Zebari referred to the Pope’s approach as “naïve and short-sighted.” For those like the Chaldean community leader – who are far from the comforts of Rome and remain in the line of fire – their lives are marked by a continual sense of the unknown.
“There can’t dialogue when one party is down and the other party has the upper hand,” Zebari lamented. “There is no equal ground here.”
Zebari said Chaldeans "have paid a high price for being Christian, and we cannot prevail without protection. When I am displaced, when my family is threatened with sexual violence and I’m then told just to pray and be tolerant...”
The Chaldeans belong to the Eastern Catholic Church that, while technically independent of Rome, recognizes and looks to the Pope as the authority. The Chaldeans, along with the Assyrians and Syriacs, make up the three major Christian groups in Iraq.
Since the sudden rise of ISIS in 2014, in which it quickly gained control of huge swaths of Christian lands across Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, the Pope routinely took the posture of speaking staunchly in defense of Islam and religious tolerance all around.
In May 2016, when the ISIS invasion was at its bloody pinnacle, the Pope asked that everyone pray God would “convert the hearts” of the deadly perpetrators, and stressed that it was wrong to identify Islam with violence. Pope Francis has instead blamed social injustice and worship of money as being among the leading causes of terrorism.
He has condemned those who support anti-immigration policies, urged Christians to take in Muslim refugees, and housed Muslim refugees in the Vatican to send a message of inclusiveness. He also campaigned repeatedly for religious tolerance and “inter-faith” dialogue.
But earlier this year, Iraqi Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil spoke more directly to problems within Islam. He spoke in a speech at Georgetown University about the “fundamental crisis within Islam itself,” and warned that if the crisis were not acknowledged, addressed and fixed, "there can be no future for Christians in the Middle East.” He encouraged “courageous voices from Islamic leaders” to continue highlighting the need for change.
A spokesperson for CUE and the Archbishop, in response to the published comments, told Fox News that "Mr. Zebari does not speak for the Chaldean Catholic Church or for the Catholic University of Erbil, but only in his private capacity as an individual."
"While he is entitled to his opinion, the Chaldean Catholic Church is grateful to Pope Francis for his many statements and signs of support for our persecuted people," the representative noted. "Most recently, these include announcing that our Patriarch will be made a Cardinal, and leading prayer for Christians in the Middle East in Bari on July 7."
Nonetheless, there are believed to be less than 200,000 Christians left in Iraq – down from 1.4 million 30 years ago, according to Iraqi census data. Most now live in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north, and in the ISIS-battered areas of the Nineveh Plains on the outskirts of Mosul.
Zebari also lamented that in their fragile post-ISIS world, Christians have become more weak politically. On May 12 he ran – without success – for one of the just five seats reserved for Christians in Iraqi Parliament, out of 329 total seats. The winner was 32-year-old Rayan al-Kildani, leader of the controversial Christian militia known as the Babylon Brigade, which took two seats and is closely aligned to the Badr Organization, a Tehran-founded political party and militia largely supported by the Shia Muslim community.
Zebari cautioned the Christian community is being further “dissolved” by demographic changes in the post-ISIS era, with Shia-aligned groups moving into areas traditionally Christian pockets.
“Our Christian ruins have been destroyed, we have lost hundreds of our villages and we are on the brink of extinction,” Zebari, who is an advocate for establishing an emergency autonomous Christian canton within Iraq.
“Based on everything we have been through – the violence, the kidnappings and the political pressure from all sides – we cannot exist without political and legal power. The important thing is to have our own political entity.”
Zebari also acknowledged that the Christian plight has been hindered because of a regional split – with half the Christians in the Kurdish region answering to Erbil, and other half in the central government terrain answering to Baghdad – a concern that could possibly be solved if afforded their own independent state.
Zebari said despite their pleas, Christian efforts and greater unification have been “undermined” by some religious leaders in the Christian community.
“We don’t expect any support from the Vatican,” Zebari said. “We are in a hopeless situation.”
Zebari said without more Vatican support, Christians have had to rely on “negligible” aid support from churches in Europe, and donors across the United States.
The Vatican did not respond to a request for comment. But statements released by their press office have noted various funding efforts to assist Christians in Iraq. The Pope recently auctioned off a “blessed” Lamborghini – which fetched almost $1 million – to support the rebuilding of homes and places of prayer in northern Iraq.
And Chaldean priest and leader in the southern California diaspora community, Father Noel Gorgis, acknowledged that while “the Vatican can always do more to water the tree of faith in Iraq,” he called Pope Francis’s words “inspirational to Chaldeans all around the globe.”
Other Chaldean activists, such as Mark Arabo of the Minority Humanitarian Foundation, acceded that the “Pope has served as a vessel for hope to many of these Iraqi Christians,” and that they are working with the Church leadership to ensure that the “Vatican assists in the rebuilding of historical Christian sites that had been ravaged by ISIS.”
This coming July, Pope Francis will also convene heads of churches and Christian communities from the Middle East in Bari, Italy for another day of prayer and reflection.
For Zebari, such convictions without action are coming tried and true.
“The future is bleak for Christians here,” he predicted. “And I don’t see much light at the end of the tunnel.”
But there is one small silver lining for the ailing religious minority. Defying the terrorist threat and rampant displacement, in late 2015 the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil formally opened the CUE in the Christian enclave of Ankawa. Today, Zebari and the student body – many still rendered homeless and deeply scarred by the ISIS onslaught – continues on with the goal of enabling Iraqi Christians, and some Muslim students too, the opportunity to make a powerful dent in the world.
CUE currently features seven departments – including IT, international relations, economics, accounting, English, oriental studies and computer sciences – with the hopes to add dentistry and architecture to the list this year.
“We want more students to join us,” Zebari added. “We want more in the community to have this opportunity.”