Iraqi Archbishop: Pope Francis is Coming to Iraq as a ‘Prophet’

Speaking with Register this week, Chaldean Archbishop Michaeel Najeeb of Mosul says the Holy Father’s March 5-8 trip to his troubled nation is badly needed, despite the risks involved.

The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Najeeb Michaeer (R) tours the old part of the northern city of Mosul, to follow the progress of restoration works there, on February 3, 2021. From Mosul's rubble-strewn streets to ancient churches at Karamlesh badly damaged by the Islamic State group, Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel is preparing for the first-ever papal visit to Iraq.
The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Najeeb Michaeer (R) tours the old part of the northern city of Mosul, to follow the progress of restoration works there, on February 3, 2021. From Mosul's rubble-strewn streets to ancient churches at Karamlesh badly damaged by the Islamic State group, Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel is preparing for the first-ever papal visit to Iraq. (photo: SAFIN HAMED Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty)

The Christians of Mosul are eagerly looking forward to Pope Francis’ visit to the once predominantly Christian city devastated by ISIS and are hoping that he will declare some of those killed by the Islamist invaders as martyrs. 

Chaldean Archbishop Michaeel Najeeb of Mosul told the Register March 2 that the Pope’s visit on Sunday will give the small number of Christians living there hope and strength, and encourage those who fled ISIS invaders to return. 

The Dominican prelate, who said he has seen the Pope’s Mosul speech, advised that Francis will draw attention to the plight of the persecuted as well as warn against corruption and the arms trade, and underline the importance of interfaith dialogue. Many Muslims, he said, have been freely helping in preparing for the event. 

Archbishop Najeeb also said he disagrees with some who think the visit should be postponed due to spikes in COVID cases and recent militant attacks. “If there were no violence, no problems in Iraq, why should he come here?” he said. “It would make no sense.”


What can we learn from Iraq’s saints and especially from her modern martyrs?

Through history we have had many famous saints. They’re around Mosul and in Nineveh — so many hundreds of persons whose names are given to monasteries and churches because they were very holy, they performed many miracles, and I know God put them with saints in heaven. 

The modern martyrs are really martyrs, even if they’re not yet declared saints. At the Vatican there are many complicated procedures in order to be declared beatified and afterward declared saints. Here, when a person gives his blood through prayer, the word, because of the name of Jesus Christ, the name of the Cross, they are saints, as well as all the people martyred through genocide — the Syrians, Chaldeans, the Orthodox. They’re saints because they were killed in the name of Jesus. 

That’s what happened in the church [of Our Lady of Salvation Church] in Baghdad [in 2010 when 48 worshippers were killed by Islamists]. It’s a very simple case of what happened 2,000 years ago — in the 3rd and 4th centuries by violence from the Persian empire when they attacked and ruled our country, and also in the Middle Ages, the 12th and 13th century, and recently in the 18th century when they attacked also Mesopotamia. They killed Christians just because they were Christians, it’s the same with the 48. Also in Mosul, I lived there and saw many, many Christians killed without reason just because they’re Christians. Father Ragheed Ganni and his companions, deacons [gunned down by Islamists in 2007]. Also, Archbishop [Paolos Faraj] Raho [killed in 2008] who declared that we as Christians want to stay and not leave, that we Christians have lived here for 2,000 years, we love each other, we want peace — and they killed them just because they declared themselves for love and peace. So even though they’re not yet canonized, they are ipso facto saints, and so the modern saints look like martyrs of the past. 


We also know them better of course, being contemporaries.

Yes they’re very famous because we know them. Ganni was my friend, Raho and I prayed together and celebrated Mass together, and now I’m in his seat, St. Paul’s in Mosul, so we can give testimony and give thanks to them. I’m coming back to Mosul and we preach love, peace, and human fraternity as the Pope has said, so it’s a very good time now to share our faith with Muslims, Yazidis, pagans or followers of other religions such as Zoroastrianism. 


Do you agree that now, during this time of hardship, we should be calling on the saints of Iraq more than ever and learn from their heroic witness, also in the West? 

Yes and I hope the Holy Father gives us a good surprise, that he will declare Ragheed, Raho, and others saints. If he gives us this kind surprise and declares them, it will really be something very good and give us strength. It will also give the Western Church much good strength, as they will know Christians in Iraq and Syria gave their lives for the name of Jesus Christ. I dream for that. The procedures continue in the Vatican, it’s complicated but why not? When we die for Jesus Christ we are martyrs, and many are saints because they do many miracles. We have Sister Cecelia Hanna [brutally killed in Iraq in 2002] performing many miracles, and they also — they killed her just because she was a Christian. 


There is much we can learn from their heroic example these days?

Exactly, it’s very good testimony and an example for future generations: Don’t be afraid. We are a little community, but we are powerful for the future, we have much courage for the future. When we left our churches, monasteries, houses in Mosul [in 2014], ISIS obliged us to choose between three things: Leave without anything, convert to Islam, or die. All preferred to leave and no one changed their faith, so all the population participated in sanctity. We could have died for Jesus Christ, but they gave us this chance to leave without anything because they stole everything from us and left us without anything. I saw many Christians, young and old, leave without anything just the little clothes they had on them. This kind of life is a saint’s life. When we try not just to escape with our families and our lives but also escape with our heritage, our archives, our many precious things, our breviary, crosses and things from the Mass — all this kind gives us strength. 

Christianity in Iraq today is more powerful than the past — really. Our faith is stronger than at any other time because God gave us the power, passion and also hope for the future. That’s why we return to the Nineveh Plain and also to Mosul.


How many Christians have returned to Mosul?

Now we’re a small community of 60-70 families but with the Pope coming here, I, as archbishop in Mosul, and another priest in Mosul, Father Emmanuel, are working in the city. I’m currently living in Karamlesh, 20 kilometers away, and I go there [to Mosul] every day to work. I will be established in Mosul next month and finish my little parish there. Many of the Christians tell me, “If you go back to Mosul, we will come with you.” And I have received many messages saying that because the Pope is coming to Mosul, this “gives us an interest in the future, a belief in the future, and we want to come back to Mosul.” So as a church, as priests and bishops, we don’t oblige the community to come back to Mosul, and we don’t oblige Christians to leave Iraq because we respect the liberty of each one. We want to help them to be disciples of Jesus Christ everywhere they are: In Europe, Australia, the land where they can become saints with the saints. The real holy land is where Jesus Christ preached, and where the Christian community live their faith. That is what makes it become holy land. Alaska becomes a holy land if we live out our faith there. 

So, I consider the main point, and it’s a very important point, that half a million left Iraq to go to foreign lands and so we consider them disciples of Jesus Christ: they preach the Bible, the Gospel, and share their faith with others. I had a call from a priest from Sweden who told me he wished to thank me and to thank ISIS. I said, “Why?” He said: “Because he pushed you and the Christian community to come to our church and now our church is full of Christians and I’m happy.” So it’s not a problem if Christians live here or there, it’s not my problem, it’s the plan of God. We’re here and very happy to be here and we will die here. And we respect also our martyrs, they are here, in Karamlesh, Mosul and elsewhere. We are near them. My parents are in the cemetery in Mosul, so we stay near them, pray together, and they pray for us also in heaven. 


What is your view of the Pope’s emphasis on interreligious dialogue? Is that very important to you?

I think it’s more than important because we need this prophetic voice. I think the Pope’s visit here to Mosul means a lot. It’s a very big gesture. He will preach and pray between the demolished churches… In this place he will preach, pray and we will meet him there. We’ve been preparing all the ceremonies for the past two months. The majority of the people working with me are Muslims, they freely came and gave a hand. They say, “The Pope is coming for us as well, not just for you, so we want to welcome him here in Mosul.” The seat the Pope will use has been made by Muslims and given as a gift — for him and for us … This gives us strength, living here.


Will the Pope speak about the persecuted do you think?

Yes, because I know his prayer and his speech, I’ve read it. He will be talking about that. He will say we don’t accept persecution, to humiliate a human life, and we encourage the population to live with humanity, in fraternity, to respect the life of each person. This kind of speech is very important for us, also to listen to the Iraqi people saying that corruption is very dangerous. I believe corruption is the main sin in Iraq. It’s very dangerous. It’s more dangerous than COVID-19, because with COVID we can choose, and we have a vaccine, but with corruption we need many decades to find a solution. So, this kind of conversion from inside the conscience of humanity is very important. 

That’s why the Holy Father has many messages to give all the population — also the more powerful message which is silence. He’ll also be here, in the middle of this destroyed town, to tell all humanity, all the world’s powers that sell chemical weapons and arms, to stop the violence, to say we can share fraternity, humanity and peace. Why do we have to sell and buy chemical weapons and arms that we use against each other? So, this kind of silent message is important, to also move conscience in the hearts of the powerful, organizations, and governments in Europe and America, to help Mosul and Iraq to rebuild again. 

We also want to rebuild it with new infrastructure that respects human life. When we have no water, electricity, food, there’s no respect. That’s why Christians and others leave for Europe and take their faith with them. But if they have a job, security, respect, Christians will still stay here. And it will be less expensive to help the population stay in their own country than pay an organization to help them in Europe, and less dangerous for them because they won’t expose Europe and America to many dangerous ideologies, especially ISIS. This kind of ideology is very dangerous, so if we keep them here and help them, especially through education, it’s very important. How can we fight violence if not by education and by peace? That’s why organizations and NGOs should work seriously after Pope’s visit to work together and not put money in the pockets of thieves, especially the government, parliament and mafia groups. 


Is this the right time for Pope to come as some Church leaders and faithful, given COVID and recent militant attacks, have said they would have preferred the visit to be postponed, perhaps to later in the year?

I think it’s very, very OK. If there were no violence, no problems in Iraq, why should he come here? It would make no sense. He would then come as a tourist, but now he won’t be coming as a tourist but as a prophet, as a missionary. So this makes sense. That’s why it’s very risky for him, for the Church, for Muslims, for Yazidis and all population, but violence exists also in Washington D.C., in New York, Paris and everywhere so why not in Mosul and Baghdad? If there’s some explosion or attack, there’s no problem about that, and as for the coronavirus, it exists all over the world, so we will take care, keep a social distance, wear masks and do our best.