Pope Francis in Iraq: A Message of Hope but Not Salvation
by Romy Haber
The Pope’s courageous visit to Iraq despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing violence aims to strengthen peaceful coexistence and harmony among different religious groups and ethnicities of the country. His historic trip is the first to the birthplace of the prophet Abraham by any head of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis considers it a ‘duty towards a land that has been tormented for so many years.’[i] But most importantly, his visit brings a message of hope to a broken community fighting for its existence — the Christians of Iraq.
The Persecuted Fear Extinction
Iraq has one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world. Saint Thomas the Apostle brought the faith to the country, the then region of Mesopotamia, in the first century. The Christian community is today mostly composed of ‘Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, Latins, Melkites, Orthodox, and Protestants,’ and there are fears of extinction among all of them.[ii] In less than 100 years, they had to face daily persecution, repression, war, and violence.
The Simele Massacre was the first of many massacres committed by the Iraqi government during the systematic targeting of Assyrians of Northern Iraq in August 1933.[iii] Over 63 Assyrian villages in the Dohuk and Mosul were attacked, and around 6,000 Assyrian men, women and children were brutally murdered. This massacre happened a few years after the Seyfo Massacre,[iv] also known as the “Year of the Sword” or the forgotten genocide of the Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac peoples, in their ancient homelands in and around ancient Mesopotamia — now Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
The persecution of the people whose culture dates back millennia and whose language, Aramaic, was spoken by Jesus, takes different forms.
Athra Kado, a Syriac language teacher and foreign affairs committee member of the Chaldo-Assyrian Student’s Union, told us that during the Baathist regime era, their native tongue, Syriac, was banned, and was only allowed for liturgy in church, following the same policy of the Ottoman Empire.
‘They were teaching in the school history books that all the Assyrian artefacts and history are Arab and that we are Arabs…Saddam was trying to erase and Arabize every other Ethnicity, and when the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) was founded in 1979, and announced the “Armed struggle” in 1982, because of the ethnic cleansing that our people were facing, Saddam’s regime executed three of the ADM leaders (Yousip, Youbert, and Youkhanna) and then followed by assassinating and killing more Assyrians during fights/attacks of the Army, until 2003. The Kurdish parties also had a share with that, in 1993, they assassinated Francis Shabo, a KRG Parliament member, after he returned from Europe, where he talked about the land grabbing and demographic changes that the Kurdish parties and tribes were doing against the Assyrians. That’s only an example of the many things done by the Kurdish parties and Saddam’s regime,’ he explained.[v]
But after the 2003 US-led invasion, the security situation only worsened with daily kidnappings and bombings. In 2014, ISIS took control of Mosul and many of the nearby Christian villages, forcing the Christians to flee without their belongings. Iraq’s ancient Christian sites and churches were destroyed, including Dair Mar Elia, the oldest monastery in the country. Between 2003-2019 the Christian population of Iraq reduced around five times, from about 1.2 million to less than 250,000.[vi] And their struggle is far from over.
‘We are facing persecution from all sides, the Iranian backed militias want to control our areas in Nineveh Plain, and make the demographic change to bring Shabaks in our towns and villages, and in some areas that they are controlling, the Assyrian Christians are not able to return to their towns (Telkepe, Batnaya, Bartella), because of these militias… In the northern part of Nineveh Plain (Baqofa, Tellesquf, Alqosh, and other Assyrian villages) the KRG (Peshmerga and Assayeesh) forces, are illegally and by de facto controlling these areas because they belong to the Iraqi central government, Nineveh Governorate. These forces are tribal and put into action the KDP political agenda on the Assyrians and Yezidis in the area, they want to erase every ethnic identity and “Kurdify” it by calling everyone Kurds, and not letting any cultural or ethnic activity that may show the real identity of Assyrians or other ethnic groups. They do not leave room for freedom of speech, whoever talks about these actions is arrested or threatened or sometimes disappears,’ Athra explained.
To this day, 57,000 residential properties of Christians in Baghdad stolen since 2003 have not been returned to their owners.[vii]
Against the backdrop of these risks and threats, the Pope’s visit to Christian communities and other minorities, like Yazidis, that have suffered so much — and are still suffering — is a message of hope. ‘You are not alone! The entire Church is close to you, with prayers and concrete charity,’ the Pope told them.[viii]
A Cry for Help
Iraqi protestors, of different sects and ethnicities, also perceived the Pope’s trip as a chance for change. When he landed in Iraq, the hashtag trending on social media was “Save us.” Many Iraqis have been protesting and asking for better living conditions since October 2019, but were only met with violence by state security forces and militias. They used the hashtag to show the Pope and the world what they have been going through. They shared pictures of the protestors brutally killed or kidnapped, asking for a hand. It is not the first time Iraqi protestors ask for international help; they feel vulnerable and powerless in front of the brutality and violence of militias. Using this hashtag, they also shared the video of the family of Raymon Ryan, sending a message to the Pope. Raymon was a Catholic killed during the October 2019 protests. His family asked the Pope to demand accountability and justice for Ryan and his friends: the 800 protestors killed. The Pope kissed the Iraqi flag Raymon was carrying during the protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square when he was killed, and it still has drops of his blood.
Pope’s Historic Journey in Iraq’s Most Treasured Sites
The Pope started his journey at the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, the site of the notorious 2010 massacre by six al-Qaeda-linked militants, who stormed and seized the church, killing dozens of worshippers. Upon his arrival, people were chanting, ululating, and some crying. A roar of joy could be heard in the place, where bullet holes in the walls still reminded of the tragedy. ‘May the memory of their sacrifice inspire us to renew our trust in the power of the cross and its saving message of forgiveness, reconciliation, and rebirth,’ Pope Francis said.
His next station was Najaf, where he met the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who reaffirmed the right of ‘Christian citizens to live like all other Iraqis in safety and peace, and with their full constitutional rights.’ The meeting emphasized the importance of collaboration and friendship between religious communities. But not everyone was as enthusiastic about the meeting and the Pope’s visit, particularly the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies in Iraq.
While most of Iraq’s secular and religious leaders have welcomed the Pope in their public statements, Abu Ali Askari from Kata’ib Hezbollah said:
‘We should not be too optimistic about the Pope’s visit. It is better to reform his country first and then reform others. We have no dialogue with the occupiers and the killers, and we warn of what is going to be woven in Ur.’[ix]
Rasha Al Aqeedi, an Iraqi researcher and analyst from Mosul focused on non-state armed groups, explained to us why they were upset with the Pope’s trip:
‘They were marginalized, the visit is all about Iraq, anything that is Iraq centered is not something they are happy about… it goes against their agenda. Even the visit to Sistani is about Iraqi Shiism and not wilayat fakih, so the division is also important…The visit acknowledges Sistani as the highest authority of Shia Islam in the world and not Khamenei.’[x]
This mirrors the internal division between two main factions of Shia Islam — the Iraq-based school that believes in the separation of religion and state, and the revolutionary, Iran-based school that believes in theocracy. Hayder al-Khoei, an Iraq analyst, considers the Pope’s visit to Sistani an ‘international and interreligious recognition’ of the Shia school that believes in the separation of church and state over Iran’s theocracy.[xi]
However, there are also other factors that explain, why Iran and its proxies were not pleased with the Pope’s itinerary in Iraq.
‘These militias are at core Islamists… they are not happy with other religions, they put a show in the past few years under the umbrella of the PMF [Popular Mobilization Forces] as liberating Christians and being only against radical Sunni Islamists but the mask is falling off. They don’t believe in tolerance and freedom of religion. And maybe they are intimidated by the pope’s visit. They confiscated the property of Christians and blown up their alcohol shops… maybe they feared these complaints would reach the pope and put them in a negative light,’ Rasha told us.
After Najaf, the Pope traveled to Ur, which is where Abraham was believed to be born in the second millennium BCE. In an interreligious meeting, Pope Francis declared that violence in the name of God is ‘the greatest blasphemy’ and appealed for tolerance and peaceful coexistence among the followers of the Abrahamic religions.[xii]
On Sunday, the Pope was around the ruins of Mosul, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate and vowed to conquer Rome and behead the Pope. In 2021, less than two years after al-Baghdadi was killed, the Pope prayed at the same place and offered his blessings.
In Qaraqosh, the biggest Christian town in Iraq’s Nineveh plains, ISIS burned down the Syriac Catholic Immaculate Conception Church and used it as a shooting range.[xiii] Al-Baghdadi vowed the area would not see the sign of the cross till the end of time. The terrorists tried to eradicate the indigenous communities of Iraq, but on Sunday those communities were dancing, singing, praying, and celebrating with their Pope. The Syriac liturgical manuscript, rescued and restored in Italy, was returned by Pope Francis to its home in Qaraqosh.
The Pope’s visit to cities devastated by ISIS a few years ago is not only a message of hope to the survivors but also symbolic of good prevailing over evil.
Light but Not the End of the Tunnel
The Pope came to Iraq as a pilgrim of peace, seeking fraternity and reconciliation. But as he was praying around the rubble in Mosul, a crucial point was brought into the spotlight: although the city was liberated a few years ago, it remains destroyed, reflecting the Iraqi government’s corruption and inefficacy. If Iraq wants to rise from ashes, it needs solid actions and reforms. A stable, peaceful, and economically thriving Iraq is naturally beneficial for all of its citizens.
The Pope was encouraging Christians and other indigenous minorities to stay in their land but there are issues of governance, security and economy that need to be addressed for that to be possible. For the Pope, all roads lead to Rome, for Iraqi Christians all roads have, so far, led to persecution and challenges.
Athra, who was also a volunteer in the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) in their fight against ISIS, shared what his community needs:
‘From the security perspective we have a good experience in the city of Baghdeda (Qaraqosh) and the town of Karemlesh, where the security forces of our people (NPU) are holding the security profile in these areas, and because of these forces, which are recruited by the Assyrian Christians of Nineveh Plain, these areas recorded more numbers of returnees than other liberated areas from ISIS in Nineveh Plain.
And from the administrative perspective, in January 2014, the Iraqi cabinet made a decision of establishing a new province for minorities in Nineveh Plain, to be part of Iraq (one province/governorates), ruled and secured by the people of the Nineveh Plain (mostly Assyrians and Yezidis), but when ISIS came after a few months from that decision and controlled most of Nineveh Plain areas, everything was stopped, and today, Northern part of Nineveh Plain is controlled by Peshmerga, which is preventing the government from completing the establishment of the new province.
So, the main steps that should be done to provide stable life, good future, and bring hope for the Assyrian Christians in Iraq are to support NPU and increase its number, bringing back the areas controlled by Peshmerga under the control of the central government, and give the security in the hands of the locals, then establishing the new province. These are the main steps, and the rest will come by its own.’
Assyrians and other minorities need support for their protection units, they understand their security concerns better than anyone else. And as victims and survivors of massacres and daily persecution, they should be granted the liberties needed to enable local self-governance and protect their identities, heritage, language, villages, homes, and, ultimately, their survival. ‘Otherwise, and if the situation remains as it’s now, there will be no future for the Assyrian Christians, neither the Yezidis, in their ancestral land,’ Athra added.
Iraq cannot be imagined without its Christians and indigenous people, and the world cannot stay passive at the expulsion of these communities from their land.
9 March 2021
[i] Andrea Tornielli, ‘The Pope, the risks of a trip, and the ‘duty’ of presence in Iraq,’ Vatican News, 5 March 2021, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2021-03/the-pope-the-risks-of-a-trip-and-the-duty-of-presence.html
[ii] Lisa Zengarini, ‘Iraq: An overview of the Church and of the country's Christian communities,’ Vatican News, 1 March 2021, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/church/news/2021-03/iraq-apostolic-journey-church-christians-history.html
[iii] Marlo Safi, ‘The Simele Massacre & the Unsung Hero of the Genocide Convention,’ National Review, 27 July 2018, www.nationalreview.com/2018/07/simele-massacre-1933-assyrian-victims-still-seek-justice/.
[iv] Seyfocenter, www.seyfocenter.com/.
[v] Author’s interview with Athra Kado, 6 March 2021.
[vi] Mark Leon Goldberg, ‘The Persecution of Christians in Iraq,’ UN Dispatch, 10 June 2019, www.undispatch.com/the-persecution-of-christians-in-iraq/.
[vii] “مسيحيو العراق يطالبون البرلمان بإقرار قانون يعيد أملاكهم المسلوبة.” Ankawa, www.ankawa.com/forum/index.php?topic=888490.0. Accessed 8 March 2021.
[viii] Fr. Benedict Mayaki, ‘Pope encourages Qaraqosh Iraqi faithful to rebuild the bonds of community,’ Vatican News, 7 March 2021, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2021-03/pope-francis-qaraqosh-iraq-apostolic-journey.html
[ix] Hassan Mahmoudi, ‘Pope Francis Meeting with Iraq’s Sistani, shakes khamenei’s tyranny,’ Riyadh Daily, 7 March 2021, alriyadhdaily.com/article/263fd76434ec4a5ca3bed818358fd3c2.
[x] Author’s interview with Rasha Al Aqeedi, 5 March 2021.
[xi] Hayder Al Khoei, ‘Opinion | the Historic Significance of Pope Francis’ Trip to Iraq — and Its Message to Iran,’ NBC News, 5 March 2021, www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/pope-francis-visiting-iraq-meet-ayatollah-sistani-here-s-why-ncna1259682.
[xii] CNA/EWTN News, ’Pope Francis appeals for interreligious harmony at birthplace of Abraham,’ B.C. Catholic, 7 March 2021, https://bccatholic.ca/news/world/pope-francis-appeals-for-interreligious-harmony-at-birthplace-of-abraham.
[xiii] World Watch Monitor, ’The Cross, Deemed Illegal by IS, Returns to Iraq’s Nineveh Plain,’ World Watch Monitor, 1 November 2016, www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2016/11/the-cross-deemed-illegal-by-is-returns-to-iraqs-nineveh-plain/.