Pope Francis in Iraq: An Errand of Mercy
EDITORIAL: By remaining steadfast, Iraq’s faithful are making a courageous and sacrificial witness to Christ.
Pope Francis’ March 5-8 trip to Iraq has one overarching mission: to focus international attention on the plight of that country’s Christians and provide them with a ray of hope regarding their future.
Lamentably, when international news media report about the continuing strife in Iraq, the plight of the nation’s Christian community is often ignored. It shouldn’t be.
Since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship, Iraqi Christians, through no fault of their own, have been targeted in a deadly crossfire from different militant factions among the country’s Muslim majority. During the period of U.S. military occupation, kidnappings and murders — including the horrific Oct. 31, 2010, massacre at the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad — combined limited economic opportunities and other intensified persecutions to force a large percentage of Iraqi Christians to emigrate or flee to safer areas of the country. Matters grew even worse for the remaining Christians after most U.S. forces departed in December 2011. Three years later, ISIS took advantage of Iraq’s internal sectarian division and political corruption to seize control of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, a location that has been a Christian heartland dating back to apostolic times.
The Islamist terrorist regime decreed that Christians would have to convert forcibly to Islam or leave the region permanently to avoid immediate execution. As they weren’t willing to abandon their faith for economic security, nearly all the Christian population fled the area (even on foot) to the adjacent semiautonomous territory of Kurdistan.
As a result of the intense persecution since 2003, Iraq’s Christian population has declined from approximately 1.5 million before the Iraq War to fewer than 150,000 today. And even though the ISIS regime was dislodged from the region in 2017, many of the Christians who fled their homes on the Nineveh Plains have yet to return because the Muslim majority remains largely unwelcoming of their presence and because the security and economic prospects for Christians continue to be questionable.
And on top of all their other sufferings, like the rest of world, they now endure the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Feb. 14, Iraq’s government imposed new restrictions, including a complete lockdown on religious gatherings, because of the pandemic. Iraq’s deadly violence is also continuing, including a Feb. 15 rocket attack in Erbil, where the Pope plans to celebrate Mass on March 7.
The fact that any Iraqi Christians remain in the country at all is a continuing testament to their love of their homeland and their faith and to their remarkable perseverance. But they need support and encouragement, something that Pope Francis has been yearning to provide to them personally.
“I think constantly of Iraq — where I want to go next year — in the hope that it can face the future through the peaceful and shared pursuit of the common good on the part of all elements of society, including the religious, and not fall back into hostilities sparked by the simmering conflicts of the regional powers,” he told a meeting of Catholic aid agencies in June 2019.
He’s not the only pope in recent times who has wanted to extend such support. St. John Paul II had hoped to visit Iraq in 1999, but the escalating international tensions that culminated with the 2003 Iraq War barred John Paul from ever attempting such a fraught visit.
Conditions are hardly less so for a papal visit right now. The recent rise in COVID cases, or the recent increase in the incidence of sectarian violence among the Muslim majority, or a combination of both factors could force Francis to call off his own trip at the last moment. But his insistence on scheduling it, despite these known threats, bears witness to how deeply the Holy Father shares in the pain of his flock in Iraq and how much he wants to fortify them by his personal presence in their midst.
And by extension, the Pope is expressing his solidarity with the many millions of Christians in countries such as Nigeria who are suffering equal or even greater persecution at this time. Iraq is No. 11 on Open Doors’ 2021 watch list of persecuted Christians around the world, a list that is headed by communist-run North Korea and also cites several Muslim-dominated Middle Eastern and African nations, as well as India, in its listing of the 10 most egregious international offenders.
Even in advance of his arrival, the Pope is already inspiring renewed hope among many of Iraq’s Christians. There is tangible excitement on the Nineveh Plains, where the Pope has scheduled several meetings with local Christians on March 7. His picture is on display everywhere throughout the area, and local Christians have been organizing youth gatherings and other events in the months leading up to the apostolic visit.
The fact that Francis is coming offers them greater confidence that their Church can endure locally — that their community will survive the trials of this moment, in the same way they have borne witness to their faith throughout more than a thousand years of second-class status under Muslim domination.
Hope is also being generated that the Holy Father’s visit might inspire some sort of interreligious accord, especially in light of his planned March 6 meeting in Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority. At the same time, local Christian leaders caution that it would be a mistake if the effort to advance interreligious dialogue were to overshadow the trip’s preeminent priority of manifesting solidarity with the oppressed Christian community.
Christians everywhere share in the Holy Father’s aspiration for a reduction in the persecution of Christians, not only in Iraq, but in the numerous other lands where they are under attack for their faith. So Catholics in the United States should unite themselves prayerfully with the Pope and with their brothers and sisters in faith in Iraq, imploring God to abundantly bless the Holy Father’s Lenten pilgrimage to this land that has played such a vital role in the life of the Church from its earliest days.
By remaining steadfast, Iraq’s faithful are making a courageous and sacrificial witness to Christ, as are Christians in the many other lands where they suffer harsh persecution. This Lent is a perfect time to reflect on their heroic sacrifices, especially when we make smaller sacrifices in our own lives to draw ourselves closer to God — and to the greatest sacrifice of all, the death of Christ on the cross for the sins of all humankind.