Pope Francis to Break New Ground in Iraq, But Is Visit Coming at the Right Time?

The March 5-8 pilgrimage aims to facilitate Francis’ push toward global human fraternity and help Iraqi Christians, but mounting COVID restrictions and recent bomb attacks are leading to increasing calls for the visit to be postponed.

Pope Francis poses with faithful from Iraq in St. Peter's Square during his weekly audience on February 26, 2020 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo: Franco Origlia)

VATICAN CITY — When Pope Francis makes history next month by becoming the first supreme pontiff to visit Iraq, he’ll be arriving in what some observers say is an almost-failed state racked by decades of sectarianism and war, a dwindling Christian population under siege from Shia militias, and a resurgent Islamic State.

But during his March 5-8 pilgrimage, the Holy Father will also witness some glimmers of hope in a country relatively at peace, especially when compared to its recent past and its more fractious and belligerent neighbors. Iraq is a land which, as the birthplace of Abraham, the Vatican sees as appropriate fertile ground for Francis’ push toward global human fraternity and peaceful coexistence between religions.

“The story of Iraq of the last 40 years has been one of sanctions, corruption, war, sectarianism, kidnapping, protests … and then the evil of ISIS,” said Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashir Warda of Erbil in northern Iraq, adding that the impact on minorities has been “beyond immense” and led them to flee. 

But with the papal visit drawing closer, people are “praying together,” he told the Register Feb. 9. “The Pope visiting the birthplace of Abraham, who is revered in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, brings a message of brotherhood, fraternity and respect, which is an extremely important message that comes from Iraq and the Iraqi people.” 

Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Sako of Baghdad has high expectations for the visit, saying on a Feb. 15 podcast of the English bishops that “this visit is something special – it’s a gift from God,” and that Iraqi Christians are expecting “very, very many things.” 

 

Iraqi Itinerary

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan said the Pope’s visit is “long-awaited” and “will be a cause of joy and a source of hope for all of the people of Iraq,” after years of war and sectarian conflicts. It’s a chance, he told the Register, to remind the international community that it is “time to seriously restore the peace process in Mesopotamia.” 

But he said Syriac Catholics would have preferred it if the visit had been postponed “to a more propitious moment, in order to motivate and involve a greater number of Christians, oppressed and close to despair for a long time in Iraq.” 

He stressed it was important to recognize that the coronavirus and a “state of insecurity due to brainwashed terrorist groups and the presence of various militias on the other” had forced the visit’s program to be restricted to mainly papal meetings with “government officials and some religious leaders.” 

According to the latest itinerary, the Pope will arrive in Baghdad on the afternoon of March 5, where he will hold meetings with civil and political leaders as well as Iraqi clergy and religious. The next day, Francis is to visit Najaf in central Iraq, where he will meet Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni al-Sistani, the 90-year-old spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims who continues to exert considerable political influence on the country. An interreligious meeting will follow at the Plain of Ur, the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham, and the day will end with Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baghdad. 

On Sunday, March 7, the Pope will be flown to Erbil in Iraq’s northern region of Kurdistan, where he will meet religious and civil authorities. This will be followed by a helicopter trip to Mosul, once a predominantly Christian city but which became an Islamic State stronghold from 2014 until Iraqi forces liberated the city in 2017, leaving the ancient part of the city in ruins. After a short stay there, he will then be flown by helicopter to nearby Qaraqosh, also a once heavily populated Christian city until the arrival of Islamic militants and now with just a few thousand faithful remaining. 

 

Witness to Christ

For the suffering Christians in Iraq, considered to be one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world dating back to apostolic times, the hope is that Pope Francis will bring Christ to the whole country and draw global attention to their plight. 

In towns in the Nineveh Plains, such as Bartella, close to Qaraqosh, the remaining few Christians there are threatened daily by Shabak militia backed by Iran — but with hardly anyone advocating on their behalf. As the Christians continue to leave, the Shabak are taking their place, “reconstructing houses illegally” and taking advantage of the “demographic shift,” said Father Benham Benoka, Bartella’s Syriac Catholic parish priest. 

The whole of the Nineveh Plains area, where the Christian population has historically been most concentrated, is “struggling these days because of threats from militias and religious and ethnic cleansing of Christians,” he said. He stressed that the “entire world” must pay “urgent particular attention for the Christians persecuted in Iraq.” 

“My parishioners hope, and are asking me, whether His Holiness is going to talk about the silent persecution of Christians, especially in Bartella,” Father Benoka told the Register Feb. 9. “Is he going to advocate on our behalf against militias and against Shabak?”

Father Benoka said the local faithful don’t want to blame anyone; they just want to live as Iraqi citizens with rights to their land and without being threatened. “We are threatened each day; we have problems because of the demographic shift and ethnic cleansing in Bartella,” he said. 

The situation facing Iraqi Christians in general is “desperate,” said Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nasarean.org, which advocates for persecuted Middle East Christians. “Although people dispute the numbers, the reality is that there are less than 200,000 Christians left — and people are leaving all the time.” Iraqis have therefore told him the papal visit is one of hope, that it “is the last chance to give the Christians, especially the young, [hope] that they have any future in Iraq.” 

With the stakes so high, some fear the Pope’s visit will be primarily political, a chance to further interreligious dialogue and his “Human Fraternity” initiative, stemming from his “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” signed in Abu Dhabi in 2019, but lacking any concrete advocacy for the persecuted. The Pope, for example, will only make a fleeting visit to Mosul, missing a chance to visit the only open church in the city, and spending just a few hours in total in the Nineveh Plains region.

Interreligious dialogue is therefore seen by many Iraqi Christians as largely irrelevant and even a form of appeasement. “It is greeted with wry humor by Christians who were driven from their homes, had their churches desecrated, and their women and children sold into slavery,” said Father Kiely. “It’s seen as a Western liberal preoccupation with little understanding of the situation on the ground.” 

Further concerns for the visit are a recent spike in coronavirus cases (leading to the imposition of a nationwide curfew beginning Feb. 18) and signs of a resurgence of the Islamic State, particularly after a dual bombing in Baghdad on Jan. 21 that killed 32 people and injured many others. On Feb. 15, a further attack took place when a Shia militant group killed one person in a rocket attack on a U.S. base in Erbil, close to the airport where Francis will arrive on March 7. 

This has led growing numbers of Iraqi Christians to echo Patriarch Younan’s wish for the visit to be postponed, according to sources contacted by the Register Feb. 16. Although the increasing restrictions and threat of violence are unlikely to affect the Pope’s interfaith outreach, they are concerned that crucially, they will diminish chances for Francis to show solidarity with Iraqi Christians. And although the faithful in the country are making great efforts to ensure the visit runs smoothly, they believe the Vatican is being “tone-deaf” to the current situation and wondering how it can justify the visit and large public gatherings in such circumstances.

Late on Tuesday, some Arab media reported that the visit had been postponed but Iraq’s ministry for foreign affairs said the visit was still on schedule.


Hopeful Signs

But there are some signs of hope and expectations that the visit could potentially do much to help the country as a whole. 

Archbishop Warda said the Iraqi people “want to have the chance of peace and coexistence” and that, in recent weeks, interest has grown among Christians. 

He gave as an example the al-Sadr party led by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, which has formed a new committee to investigate property stolen from Christians. “This is a genuine and most welcome initiative,” Archbishop Warda said. 

He also drew attention to the Catholic University in Erbil, a private nonprofit institution the archbishop helped found in December 2015 with the Kurdistan regional government. 

With 161 students (mostly Christian but also Muslim and Yazidi), the university is a “critical anchor project,” with a “mission and vision” for keeping the remnant Christianity and the minorities in Iraq, Archbishop Warda said. “Imagine the influence of a thousand-plus students by 2025/26, sowing immense seeds for social cohesion, justice, critical thinking and religious tolerance,” he added, and he appealed for “international teachers to come and support our mission here.”

Overall, Archbishop Warda predicted the Pope’s visit would be “hugely rewarding for all as we strive for a country to rebuild itself, working together in peaceful coexistence.” 

And he views the motto of the apostolic voyage — “You Are All Brothers” — as “the message of encouragement from His Holiness from the beginning to the end of his three-day visit.”

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