Pope’s Visit Provides Balm to Beleaguered Iraqis

A NOTE FROM OUR PUBLISHER: Pope Francis' visit has provided the small minority of Catholics who remain in Iraq and the many who are in diaspora hope for the future, but the fight to protect religious freedom continues.

Pope Francis walks towards a statue that was rescued from a church destroyed by ISIS in the village of Karemlash while conducting a mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium on March 07, 2021 in Erbil, Iraq.
Pope Francis walks towards a statue that was rescued from a church destroyed by ISIS in the village of Karemlash while conducting a mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium on March 07, 2021 in Erbil, Iraq. (photo: Chris McGrath / Getty)

History is likely to judge Pope Francis’ March 5-8 trip to Iraq as one of this papacy’s signature moments. Despite the ongoing worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the Pope was determined to visit the nation plagued by deadly sectarian violence. The 84-year-old Holy Father focused much-needed international attention on Iraq and raised the collective spirits of its embattled inhabitants.

The trip was a powerful encapsulation of the central hallmark of this pope’s travels: his resolve to use his personal presence to communicate his closeness and support for marginalized communities and his urgent plea for Christians around the world to do the same. His physical presence this time was especially poignant precisely because he stood amid the ruins of the Islamic State’s acts of terror to be near Iraq’s beleaguered Christian community, which has endured violence, persecution and exile specifically because of their refusal to abandon their faith.

While in Iraq, the Pope visited the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, where 48 Christians, including two priests, were brutally slaughtered during Mass in 2010 by Islamist terrorists linked to al-Qaida. He also met with Doha Sabah Abdullah, a mother whose son, along with his cousin and neighbor, died as the result of an Islamic State bombing in the Syriac Catholic Immaculate Conception Church in Qaraqosh. In generously forgiving her son’s killers, Sabah Abdullah gave incredible witness to what Francis called the “pure Gospel” lived out.

The Holy Father declared to the world, “The Church in Iraq is a martyr-Church.” That suffering is an indisputable fact. 

During the flight back to Rome, the Pope told reporters that the destruction he saw in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains left him “speechless.” There, Christianity has retained an unbroken presence back to apostolic times, despite centuries of oppression that culminated most recently with ISIS’ persecution in 2014. The brutal Islamist caliphate immediately evicted the region’s entire Christian population, on pain of death, seizing all of their property and destroying their churches and other buildings. 

It has been nearly four years since ISIS was routed from the region, but to date only a small fraction of these displaced Christians have been willing to return because of legitimate fears of renewed persecution and the challenges of gaining physical and economic security. The country’s Christian population was estimated to be 1.5 million in 2003. It is approximately 200,000 today. Those few who have come back continue to endure indifference and injustice at the hands of the Iraqi government, as well as the region’s Muslim majority. 

Now, the Pope’s visit has provided the small minority of Catholics who remain in Iraq and the many who are in diaspora solace and also hope for the future. 

Their response is a testament both to the personal resolve of the Holy Father and to the unique power of the Petrine office.

The Iraq trip also served as another reminder that the earthly significance of a papal visit, primarily spiritual though it is, should not be underestimated. The visual testimony provided by the presence of the Pope, combined with the force of his prayers at the Masses he offered and at other events, has the power to move political mountains, opening doors to reconciliation that seemed entirely nailed shut. 

In Iraq, for example, immediately after his private meeting with the Holy Father, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani released a statement urging that Christians should be able to “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.” 

At the same time, it’s true that a papal trip alone is not enough to translate gestures like the grand ayatollah’s conciliatory words into concrete, on-the-ground improvements for local Catholics and other Christians. It’s critical that political authorities, especially here in the U.S., build on the opening that the Pope has secured, by pressuring the Iraqi government to extend fair treatment to Christians and other religious minorities. 

President Joe Biden took a tentative step in that direction in his remarks praising the Holy Father’s efforts to promote religious tolerance during the trip. Now, the president’s brief remarks must be amplified by actions that reaffirm and expand upon the steps taken by the Trump administration to protect the imperiled Iraqi Christian community and to defend religious freedom across the globe. 

Christians face constant threats to their freedom throughout Africa and the Middle and Near East in the forms of discrimination and harassment, particularly at the hands of Islamist militants and other regimes. 

In Nigeria, where more Christians were killed for their religion than in any other country, according to Open Doors’ 2021 “World Watch List,” and across much of the rest of Africa, violence against Christians by Islamic terror groups has been on the rise. 

In Asia, communist North Korea continues to be the world’s worst violator of Christian religious freedom. In neighboring China, the oppressive ideology of the Chinese Communist Party is imposing harsh new restrictions on Christian worship, including for Catholics, despite the 2018 Vatican-China provisional agreement regarding the appointment of Chinese bishops. China’s Muslim Uyghur minority, meanwhile, is experiencing a persecution so severe that the U.S. government has publicly denounced it as genocide.

As individual Catholics, we need to play a role in opposing these evils, by praying for persecuted Christians in Iraq and elsewhere, pressing our elected representatives to extend to them the support they need and deserve, and financially supporting the efforts of Catholic organizations like the Knights of Columbus and others who deliver direct assistance. EWTN News intends to do our part, as well, by continuing our efforts to focus attention on international hot spots like Iraq, where our Christian brothers and sisters are suffering the worst persecutions, and by seeking to raise awareness everywhere about the importance of religious freedom, including the growing threats here at home.

God bless you!