Cardinal Filoni: Iraqi Christians Have the Fundamental Human Right to Remain on Their Historic Lands

The current grand master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, who served as apostolic nuncio to Iraq during the 2003 American bombing of Baghdad, discusses the high stakes of the upcoming papal trip to this ancient locale of the faith.

Cardinal Fernando Filoni meets with Iraqi refugees, including Yazidi, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Governorate of Dohuk.
Cardinal Fernando Filoni meets with Iraqi refugees, including Yazidi, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Governorate of Dohuk. (photo: Courtesy of the secretary of Cardinal Filoni)

His decision not to leave his nunciature during the 2003 Battle of Baghdad earned him the nickname of “Nuncio Courage” in the country. For Cardinal Fernando Filoni, however, remaining with his flock at the risk of his life was an intrinsic part of the mission that John Paul II entrusted to him two years earlier by appointing him apostolic nuncio to Iraq, an office which he held until 2006. 

This life-changing experience with suffering Christian people — which remains an inexhaustible source of inspiration in his current mission in the service of the Church in the Holy Land — also earned him the special trust of Pope Francis, who has invited him to take part in his March 5-8 apostolic trip to Iraq, as Cardinal Filoni disclosed last month in this interview with the Register. The Holy Father already sent him to Iraq twice as his special representative in 2014 and 2015, following the capture of the Plains of Nineveh by ISIS. 

Born in 1946 in Mandura, Italy, Cardinal Filoni has been grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem since December 2019. Before this, he served as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (2012-2019) and deputy for general affairs of the Secretariat of State (2007-2012). 

At the approach of this much-awaited papal trip, the Register sought his views on the opportunities and challenges awaiting the Holy Father in this land that saw the birth of some of the first Christian communities. 


You were apostolic nuncio to Iraq during the U.S. bombing in 2003. How did you experience this tragic moment in history, which contributed to the massive exodus of Christians in the country?

When I was appointed, we already knew that the situation in Iraq was very delicate. Because after the first Gulf War, the United Nations intervened in the country’s affairs in many ways, and they imposed very harsh sanctions. Pope John Paul II appointed me as apostolic nuncio to Iraq two years before the war burst out, and I accepted with amazement because I was not an expert of the Middle East at that time, although I followed closely the problems of the region, especially in Iran, where I had been already. The Pope sent me with the express mission of being “a messenger of peace and hope” for the Christian communities of this land. I have always carried these words in my heart, like a good viaticum.

There, I immediately found a very welcoming environment, also because, at that time, the nunciature was highly esteemed because my predecessor, Archbishop Marian Olés, also stayed during the first Gulf War, while everyone left. This earned him sympathy from the regime, as well. 

At that time, the regime kept the reality of religious tensions under control, even though there were some already, especially with the Shiites in the south of the country. But in Baghdad, the situation was safe, and Christians were quite respected in the country. Freedom of worship was guaranteed, but one should not touch political issues. 

The bombing began on March 19, 2003, on the liturgical feast of St. Joseph. I thought that peace had been mortally wounded, but hope was still alive; so, by staying in Iraq with its people and sharing its anxieties, I could be a messenger of hope. 

Of course, there was a traumatic dimension, for the bombs and missiles could hit us at any moment and did great damage — some of them even fell near the nunciature. We had no shelters. But it enabled us to share the lives of poor people. One of the initiatives I promoted was that of saying: “No one should leave the country. We all have to stay here with our people and open our churches.” And so, all the churches stayed open, even at night, and people were coming with their mats that they would take back in the morning. We also made visits to all the areas that we knew were hit by bombings. 

But there was still the sadness of the — so many — deaths and destruction, and we could not hide behind the shadow of the so-called “preventive war,” nor even less behind the so-called “collaterality.” When you are under the bombs and you hear the missiles exploding, what sense do those expressions have? The consequences of that war have been immense; one of them was the accentuated exodus of many Christian families, but not only. Let’s not forget, along with the destruction, the countless dead and wounded, both from Iraq and the countries in conflict, including the U.S.


Your field experience can be precious to the Pope as he prepares for this long-awaited trip. Have you already had the opportunity to discuss that topic with him? 

Actually, the Holy Father has invited me to be part of his retinue, so I will go to Iraq with him. It is a gesture of benevolence and sensitivity on his part.

In the past, we have spoken several times about these issues because, in 2014, the Pope sent me there as his special representative during the famous sad exodus of Christians from the Plain of Nineveh. In addition to the various Christian communities, I also visited the Yazidi refugees and their spiritual home. I brought a substantial aid from the Holy Father for the refugees. And I also had a chance to meet with authorities in Kurdistan and in Baghdad.

Afterwards, I reported on this, and the Pope was well aware of this reality. I was asked to write a book, The Church in Iraq, translated in many languages, including Arabic. It is a very comprehensive volume, as I gave it a unitary dimension, starting from the beginning of evangelization, with St. Thomas, until our days.


What do you expect from this trip?

This trip is a desire that the Pope already expressed to me when I first returned from Iraq in 2014, and again at the end of my second trip there for Holy Week in 2015. This trip is not just about the Pope making a nice gesture — the whole Church is going with him to these lands. It is an ecclesial and a pastoral visit, in support to Christians and minorities, an incentive to strengthen dialogue between Christians and Muslims. And I would personally add that it is also an occasion to encourage dialogue between Muslims themselves.


How could the Pope’s visit encourage such an intra-Muslim ecumenism, that is, between Shiites and Sunnis?

Again, this is a personal point of view. Having lived for some years in Iran, Iraq and Jordan, I had the perception that many problems, even international issues, arise from the deep religious rift that exists in Islam. It has basically always been the case. This has given rise to countless wars and conflicts of a political-religious nature. 

In the Shiite world, the days of Ashura still bring many people to the streets, weeping and scourging themselves for the death of Ali and Hussein, of Muhammad’s family, in the defeat of the Shiite faction by the Umayyad Caliph (680 A.D.). If we do not overcome the concept of revenge, that of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, if we do not enter into a logic of dialogue, beyond opposition, then clashes and wars will continue. In the logic of peace, there are no boundaries. As Christians, we are in favor of dialogue; diversity should not lead to opposition. 

After the Pope signed the “Document on Human Fraternity” in Abu Dhabi, these contacts have evolved in so many ways and forms, and I think that this, too, can favor dialogue and mutual understanding, for the benefit of all.


Patriarch Sako has decided to reinforce the Christian presence and their sense of belonging to the country through the creation of new episcopal sees lately. However, it is not an easy task. There is a lot of talk about the need to help Christians stay on their lands, or to return for those who have fled. But what could be concrete solutions to achieve this in a country whose constitution is (since 2005) based on the Quran?

During my last two visits there, I heard strong words from local authorities — especially in the north, where there is the largest Christian community — who said that Christians had the native right to remain on their lands. So it is not simply a concession, nor a tolerance, but a native right. It is not a matter of vindication, but it is about saying: If we base coexistence on human rights, then we all have the same rights. 

The Middle East belongs to everyone because of its ancient culture and civilization. We are indebted to it. Also, from the Christian point of view, here took place Jesus’ life, that of the prophets, of the primitive Church that had great vitality for centuries. The Christian presence, even in its multiform expressions, is important. The logic of making these communities disappear is like making life disappear and preparing a desert, an impoverished environment. 

For millennia, the presence of so many religious, ethnic and cultural expressions has enriched this region. Of course, it is not like persecution never got the better of civil coexistence there in the past — far from it! But we ask ourselves: Must we continue with that logic? Have we learned nothing from history and from the suffering of millions of people? Is it still necessary to resort to the logic of oppression? Why should the riches of that region make envy, jealousy, oppression prevail instead of development, sharing and peaceful coexistence? 

In any case, everyone has the task of fostering the Christian presence in those lands, but it is especially up to the original Christians not to behave like people who chase after other myths and the so-called “well-being” and to have love and awareness of their role and mission. Certainly, the Christian presence is not favored if one imposes on everyone a vision of life and law, or constitutions based on Islamic principles or sharia. While this is understandable within Muslim communities, it cannot be for everyone. The common denominator is law that favors and respects human rights, without discrimination, as well as the development of a vision of peace. 

As for the episcopal sees, it must be said that in ancient times, there were many — from Mesopotamia they extended as far as China; what the Chaldean Synod has done is to restore some sees that in the past decades, for various reasons, had been merged, in order to help Christian communities to feel closer to their pastors.


How is your past experience with suffering Christian communities inspiring you in your current mission as cardinal grand master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre? 

With the mission of taking care of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, I am returning to the Middle East in a way. The Holy Land has always been in the heart and mind of the Church. It belongs to us, as it belongs to the Jewish people and to the peoples who have always been there. There are anthropological, cultural, religious and political reasons for this. No one holds all of them. The Order of the Holy Sepulchre has the task, entrusted by the supreme pontiffs, especially since Pius IX, to help the land of Jesus, supporting the Christian presence and promoting the coexistence of all. Thus, for example, the schools we support or the social works are open to all: We live together; we learn together; we prepare for a future of respect, understanding and friendship. The order does this with the contribution of all its members, since ours is not simply an honorary order, but a contributory one. No other equestrian order — forgive me for being so bold — can “boast” of such a unique origin: the Holy Sepulchre; the place used as a deposition for a corpse, which became the furrow in which the fallen seed opened up to an “other” life, that of the Risen Jesus!


A little more than one year after taking office, what is your assessment about your mission? What dynamics would you like to develop in the coming years? 

The Order of the Holy Sepulchre is present almost everywhere, especially in the United States; it is very substantial. This is an important opportunity for us because the members of the order are always aware of this vocation to the mission, in the sense that they feel called to contribute to the good of the land of Jesus. 

Despite, or perhaps thanks to COVID-19, the order has not been limited to its own internal activities. I refer, for example, to the extraordinary and generous help given to families and to the Latin Patriarchate in the Holy Land; I refer to the request of so many who, in all parts of the world, ask to become part of our order. It is not only because of the good that can be done; people are also attracted by the fact that we care for the spiritual life of our members. The recent publication of a text of spirituality (E tutta la casa si riempì del profumo dell’unguento — “And the Whole House Was Filled With the Fragrance of Ointment”), already available in Italian and, in the next few days, also in English, French, Spanish, German and Portuguese, gives the dimension and makes the root of belonging or the desire to belong to it known. If I may, I would recommend this text to everyone because it is designed for the people of God: lay, clergy and religious. The statute, recently approved by the Pope, as well as the regulation of the order’s life, are part of the order’s commitment to renewal.

As for my assessment, it is better not to do one. Let us leave it to God; it is enough to be little workers in the vineyard of the Lord. This is a great grace.