Papal Visit to Iraq: Comfort or Compromise?
When Pope Francis steps off the plane in Baghdad on March 5, he will become the first pope in history to visit that overwhelmingly Muslim country. But Iraq has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Ancient tradition claims the foundations of the Christian church in what was then Mesopotamia were laid down by the apostle Thomas and his disciples Aggai and Mari. At least two bishops from the region were present at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 to promulgate the Nicene creed, still recited every Sunday by most orthodox Christians.
But the Christian community in Iraq that will greet the pope is, according to many inside the country, in danger of extinction. Before the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is estimated that there were more than 1.3 million Iraqi Christians, mainly Chaldean and Syriac Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants. Now, although figures differ, it is likely that there are less than 200,000 Christians, of all denominations, left in the country.
There is no doubt that the visit is long awaited and the cause of much hope for such a beleaguered community. Iraqi Christians, along with many other persecuted Christian communities in the Middle East, especially in Syria, have long felt that the Western church has paid scant attention to the near total destruction of the church in the lands where Christianity began. I have heard many times, on my visits to Iraq and in Syria, including from senior ecclesial figures that, deep down, they feel abandoned, certainly by the media, but also, more disturbingly, by Christian leaders in the West. Iraqi Christians look forward to welcoming the Bishop of Rome, but some fear that even this visit will fail to make their suffering known.
The emergence of the Islamic State, and their conquest of many of the Christian towns on the Nineveh Plain in July and August of 2014 was not the cause of the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq. That was only the latest and most deadly persecution, after years of murder, kidnapping, and ethnic cleansing. The city of Mosul was already almost uninhabitable for Christians by the time ISIS took control. Mosul, which Pope Francis will visit for a short time, is the biblical city of Nineveh preached to by the prophet Jonah. Its Chaldean Catholic Bishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and murdered in 2008. A year earlier, one of his priests, Ragheed Ganni, and three deacons were shot dead by Islamists outside their Church. Many in Iraq were hoping that Pope Francis would beatify them during his visit next month, but that seems unlikely.
From the Caliphate’s rise in 2014 to its defeat in 2017, more than 120,000 Christians were driven from their ancestral homes on the Nineveh Plain, along with many thousands of Yazidis and other religious minorities. Many of them finding shelter with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan. I vividly remember, on the first of my many visits to the region, in early 2015, seeing the Christians and Yazidis living in abandoned buildings, in shipping containers, and in prefabricated huts, with nearly all the food and shelter being provided by Catholic Church organizations and Christian NGOs.
Iraqi Christians I have spoken to, and whom I have gotten to know well over multiple visits in the last six years, have told me they pray Pope Francis will do three things on his historic visit. More than anything else, they want him to highlight what happened to them, not only the severe persecution under ISIS, but the long history of persecution they have endured for centuries. Critically, they hope the visit will draw the world’s attention to the ongoing persecution of Christians, not just in Iraq and the Middle East, but across the world. Making that his central focus, and the media coverage it will gain, will go some way to redressing the inattention this persecution has received. They need the successor of St. Peter to comfort them, and to strengthen them, not just by words, but by challenging authorities, speaking truth to power, to give Christians and other minorities equal status as citizens—something they are denied under the Iraqi Constitution. Lastly, for the visit to be seen as a success by those who really matter, the Pope needs to listen to those who will speak with transparency and honesty, not always a feature of those in power, both in civil society and the church.
However, according to sources I have spoken to, there are growing concerns about the feasibility of the visit and its central focus.
Concerns center on the narrative emerging from the Vatican and, it must be said, from the Pope himself, about religious dialogue and the “Document of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” signed in Abu Dhabi in 2019. Pope Francis will pay a courtesy visit to the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani in Najaf on the second full day of his visit. The Vatican had hoped the Ayatollah, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite community, would also sign the Abu Dhabi “Human Fraternity” project document, which sounds like something produced by a U.N. commission. However, it now seems the Ayatollah will not sign any such thing.
The speech the pope will make at Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, on the same day as the visit with the Ayatollah is a most appropriate occasion to speak about the need for the three Abrahamic religions to live in peace, but even the title and logo of the Pope’s visit, “You Are All Brothers,” leads many Iraqi Christians to worry that those who suffered so much from Islamic extremism will be lectured about living in peace with their neighbors. As one Iraqi priest said to me, “My home was stolen by neighbors and my Church became an ISIS torture center. I don’t need to be told to live in peace. We were living peacefully.” Iraqi Christians responded with great pain when, in May 2016, on his visit to the Greek Island of Lesbos, the Pope brought back to Rome three Muslim refugee families, and not one Christian family. Similarly his comments after the murder of the 85-year-old French priest Fr. Jacques Hamel by Islamists in Normandy, France, in July 2016, in which he said that if “I speak of Islamic violence, I have to speak of Christian violence,” caused much confusion and anguish for people who had been driven from their homes, had their women kidnapped and raped, and who had refrained from responding with violence.
Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Younan said in recent days that he would have preferred the visit be “postponed,” because Iraq has been severely hit by COVID-19, with cases rising in the last few weeks. He also expressed a concern I have heard from others on the ground: The Shia militias under Iranian direction, which are the real powerbroker on the Nineveh Plain despite it being nominally under the control of the Iraqi army, will use this visit for their own purposes. Among other things, the militias will claim that they are providing security and protection for the Christians who have returned to Nineveh, when in fact they are engaged in a policy of demographic and economic ethnic cleansing, changing formerly Christian towns into majority-Shiite strongholds.
The security situation has deteriorated in recent weeks, with at least fourteen rockets landing on February 15 around Erbil International Airport, where the pope will arrive on March 7. The attack killed one contractor, and injured several others, with rockets landing in other residential areas. It is widely believed this attack was directed by Iran to test the new Biden administration.
Pope Francis has the opportunity, and the tremendous good wishes of all the Iraqi Christians, to make this visit a turning point for Christians across the Middle East, by acknowledging their persecution and giving them a sign of hope for their future. But that could be lost in a trip with a U.N.-style focus, complete with well-meaning phrases about dialogue and brotherhood, but with little reference to the experience on the ground.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is the Founder of Nasarean.org, a charity helping persecuted Christians.