A welcome to strangers in Iraq

A welcome to strangers in Iraq World Vision Blog

Photo: 2015 Steve Jeter/World Vision

"I was a stranger and you welcomed me." –Matthew 25:35 (ESV).

See how Christians in Iraq, displaced by conflict, are focused on surviving together as a community and finding refuge for their children and neighbors.


"I was a stranger and you welcomed me." –Matthew 25:35 (ESV).

Jesus tells us this is one of the top criteria that God will use to judge our lives. If Jesus is right, Fr. Jens Petzold is a saint.

After Syrians and Iraqis were kicked out of their homes by conflict, this desert monk opened his monastery on the Iran-Iraq border to 180 people displaced within Iraq.

A Catholic priest, Fr. Petzold fulfills Pope Francis’s hope that priests be shepherds who are close to their flock.

A welcome to strangers in Iraq World Vision Blog
Fr. Jens Petzold. (Photo: 2015 Christine Anderson)


Fr. Petzold was one of several heroes I met last November while I was in northern Iraq studying the work of World Vision in response to the crisis in the Middle East.

While there I also spent time with another priest who opened my eyes to the reality that when it comes to conflict, 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.

Fr. Daniel Alkhari, a 25-year-old Chaldean priest, ministers in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. The church has become home to more than 800 Iraqi Christians who have been displaced since 2014. The church hosts services each weekend for three different Christian faith traditions.

In some strange way, perhaps the crisis has become the strongest force for ecumenism in the world. Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Catholic leader of Erbil, Iraq, told me that this kind of practical ecumenism plays out daily in his ministry.

“The 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 particular experience of the Christian people of coming together and helping others despite their differences has provided a model for the entire region.

A welcome to strangers in Iraq World Vision Blog
Chris Hale (right) with Archbiship Warda. (Photo: 2015 Christine Anderson)


"To the poor, he proclaimed the good news of salvation; to prisoners, freedom; and to those in sorrow, joy."

This is the way an old communion prayer describes Jesus' ministry, and this is the reality of faith that I've experienced in Iraq: a Church on the margins, a Church that is poor for the poor, a Church that heals wounds and warms hearts, a Church that is always a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved, and forgiven.

While I was in Iraq, a fake internet-driven controversy arose in the United States about Christians supposedly being upset that the design of the Starbucks holiday cup was too secular.

But the Christians I met weren't concerned about the appropriate design of their Starbucks cup. They were concerned about their survival as a community. They were concerned about finding refuge for their children and their neighbors. And they sought not only our prayers, but our tangible support.

With millions of Iraqis and Syrians now internally displaced or living as refugees, a raucous presidential election at home here in the United States, and a new phase of the civil war in Syria emerging, it’s hard to know what the immediate future of this humanitarian crisis looks like.

But with the strength and resilience of the people of Iraq and Syria, along with our involvement, our hospitality, and our faith, we can build on the ancient biblical tradition of “hoping against hope.”

This narrow road is gritty, but it isn’t sterile. If we work together, we can create a better future for some of our world’s most vulnerable persons.

Christopher J. Hale is the Executive Director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and a contributor to Time Magazine.

Join us in building a better future for the most vulnerable and displaced in Iraq. Donate today to our Crisis in Northern Iraq fund.

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