Iraqi Christians are reaching out with forgiveness to the Islamic radicals who have murdered, tortured, and raped their communities, even as they face an existential struggle for survival.
Iraqi Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, who has been outspoken about the plight of Christians in his country, said believers "have endured persecution in patience and faith for 1,400 years," but now face an "existential struggle" that could possibly be their last in Iraq.
Speaking at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. last week at an event hosted by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, the bishop noted that the Islamic State terror group displaced more than 125,000 Christians in the Nineveh region.
Warda said the attacks left Christians "without shelter, without refuge, without work, without properties, without monasteries, without the ability to participate in any of the things that give our lives dignity," as reported by Catholic News Agency.
"So few of us are left, some estimate 200,000 Christians or less," he said of the total number of Christians in the country, down from 1.5 million in 2003.
"While it is true that our numbers are small, the Apostles were much smaller."
Still, the church leader said that Christians are open to forgiveness despite the horrors of the genocide they have suffered.
"We forgive those who murdered us, who tortured us, who raped us, who sought to destroy everything about us. We forgive them in the name of Christ," Warda declared.
He added that Muslim leaders need to do more than simply clarify that IS does not represent their faith, but praised some nations, such as the United Arab Emirates, for offering genuine support to the victims of violence.
"Since the ISIS attack, they've been with us helping all — Catholics, Yazidis, Muslims," the bishop explained.
"There is a fundamental crisis within Islam itself and if this crisis is not acknowledged, addressed and fixed then there can be no future for Christians in the Middle East," he added.
"We've been hearing some courageous voices from Islamic leaders concerning the need of change and the need to address this issue openly. It should be encouraged."
The decimated communities have seen hope in the opening of the new Catholic University of Erbil, which welcomes both Christian and Muslim students, offering degrees in economics, international law, English literature, and accounting, among others.
Nineveh Plains Christians were also able to celebrate the reconsecration of the first church since IS' invasion in December, with the reopening of St. George's Church in Telleskuf.
Others, such as Ashur Sargon Eskrya, president of the Assyrian Aid Society branch in Iraq, have said that despite the victories against IS and the liberation of Iraqi territories, Christians are facing their "biggest and greatest challenge" in returning to their homelands.
"Iraqi Christians (Assyrian,Chaldean) are indigenous peoples of the country, according to historical sources, and their future in Iraq depends of on international support and protection. Without protections, they will not be able to live in Iraq anymore," Eskrya said in August 2017.
"It is critical time for the Christians of Iraq — 'to be or not to be.' The Christians of Iraq are facing their biggest and greatest challenge" in post-IS Iraq, he added.