Symbols and Words from the Pope in Iraq
It was the clumps of beard hair on the ground that stay in my memory, even more than the destroyed buildings. Walking around the Old City of Mosul in May 2018, accompanied by an Iraqi police general and armed guards, we were guided along the paths that had been cleared of ISIS booby-traps and unexploded coalition bombs. Several of the churches had only been cleared of bodies in the previous days, and the unpleasant sludge of remains was still visible on the floors.
The Islamic State had used many of the churches in the Old City, all now destroyed or severely damaged, as headquarters, prisons, and torture chambers. My friend—a journalist and fellow Englishman traveling with me—remarked that there was human hair on the floor; I told him it was just carpet. Yet as we looked into a room where another body had been, I realized that it was human hair, facial hair. The general told us that ISIS fighters had shaved their beards in the last days of fighting in order to avoid capture. During their brutal control of Mosul, where Abu Al-Baghdadi had proclaimed the caliphate, from 2014 to 2017, men of the Islamic State were expected to grow their beards long, and could face 20 lashes if they shaved.
Destruction was all around: cars riddled with bullet holes or upside down, and so many buildings destroyed, with rubble everywhere. A year later I was back. The situation had improved somewhat, with some of the rubble cleared and many buildings, including the building where ISIS threw homosexuals from the roof, fully demolished. However, the churches were still in wreckage, and the only church due to reopen was a prefabricated building that had been in a refugee camp in Erbil, which was being moved to Mosul. Virtually no Christian families had returned, and there was no resident priest or bishop.
This last Sunday, Pope Francis became not only the first pope in history to visit Iraq, but one of the very few international figures to venture into the Old City of Mosul. His short visit, to the same square, surrounded by the destroyed churches of the different denominations that had once thrived in this ancient city, was a remarkable moment, perhaps the most remarkable picture of the three-day visit to Iraq. It was not so much what he said—he recited a prayer for all the victims of war and violence and called for peace and toleration—but the symbolism of his presence. There is still no resident bishop, only one resident priest, and that pre-fabricated building is now the Church of the Annunciation, the only functioning church in the city. Very few Christian families have returned.
Mosul has not been rebuilt and many residents feel that the Iraqi government has greatly neglected the city. It is still considered dangerous, with ISIS cells re-emerging and, more importantly, the different Shia militias (who are the real powerbrokers) vying for control. Add to that the story that was barely touched on by the world media—the desire of an expansionist Turkey to claim back Mosul, a city it once controlled under the Ottoman empire—and the full import of the moment becomes apparent: The pope of Rome came when so many fear to return.
Iraq’s beleaguered Christian population, and other religious minorities, especially the Yazidis, hoped that the pope’s visit will bring the world’s attention to their plight, and that the civil powers in both Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government would fully recognize their civil rights. Christians specifically wanted Pope Francis to encourage them, acknowledge the martyrdom that many suffered, and be a voice for their future. His words to Iraqi civic leaders on his arrival, apart from the usual niceties, had two direct challenges that the precarious minority groups wanted to hear: He challenged corruption and “disregard for law” in Iraqi society, and he asked that “no one be considered a second-class citizen.” The Iraqi Constitution treats all non-Muslims as second-class citizens, not equal under the law, so this statement was essential, but not as forceful as many had hoped it would be.
Perhaps the most powerful words addressing the suffering Christians had endured were uttered in the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, after the meeting with civil leadership. That was the church where, in 2010, Islamist terrorists had attacked the congregation during mass, detonating suicide vests to kill two priests and more than 40 men, women, and children. The pope described the cathedral as a place “hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price for their fidelity to the Lord and His Church.” He reminded the Christians, and more importantly those who deny the Christian population a place in Iraq, that Iraq is a “land so closely linked to the history of salvation, and you are a part of that history.”
Many Christians in Iraq had worried that the emphasis of the Vatican would be on religious dialogue and “Human Fraternity.” And that was certainly a major feature of the visit, referred to in almost every speech. The key moment, joint prayers with other religious groups at the birthplace of Abraham in Ur, was certainly a striking spectacle, but noticeably absent and unmentioned was the former Jewish community of Iraq. The great fear of Christians is that what happened to the Jews will happen to them. Francis strongly condemned the persecution of the Yazidi community, something to be welcomed, and particularly drew the world’s attention to the thousands of Yazidi women and children still missing. The courtesy visit to the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, did not bring his signature to the Abu-Dhabi agreement on “Human Fraternity,” signed in February 2019 that the Vatican had hoped for, but Sistani’s words on the right of Christians to equality in Iraqi society were very valuable.
Apart from the hugely symbolic moments in Mosul on Sunday, the last two events of the trip were meant to be entirely devoted to the Christian communities of the Nineveh Plain who have suffered so much at the hands of ISIS. Undoubtably the pope’s presence was the cause of the greatest joy. Perhaps his rather understated words both in Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town on the Nineveh Plain, and in the final mass in Erbil will not be remembered for their lack of emphasis on the sufferings the communities had endured. While encouraging Christians to “not give up,” and “not lose hope,” peculiar phrases in the last homily at the soccer stadium in Erbil warned that “hearts must be cleansed from the temptations of power and money,” which caused a degree of confusion, given that most of the Christians on the Nineveh Plain have neither. Some are speculating that the influence of Fr. Antonio Spadaro, one of the Pope’s closest advisors, could be seen in many of the speeches and homilies.
The long-term success of the visit will be judged on two factors: firstly, whether Christians and other religious minorities are given equal rights under the Iraqi Constitution; and secondly, whether the dangerous level of emigration of Christian families and young people can be reversed, which may depend on economic stability and the hope of employment. The fact that the pope came, in a time of pandemic and danger, is something all Iraqis, and certainly the indigenous Christian community, welcomed and appreciated with great joy. Whether the visit will be remembered as a beautiful symbol, and not much else, remains to be seen.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is the Founder of Nasarean.org, a charity helping persecuted Christians.