Can Pope Francis save Iraq′s Christians from ′extinction′? | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 05.03.2021
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Can Pope Francis save Iraq's Christians from 'extinction'?

Iraq's Christian minority has dealt with decades of persecution — and many are skeptical about whether a four-day visit by Pope Francis will make a difference.

 Iraqi municipal workers sweep a street in front of a giant board covered with a painting of Pope Francis.

Iraq has spent months preparing for Pope Francis' visit

Pope Francis, leader of the Catholic Church, began a historic four-day visit to Iraq on Friday morning, marking the first papal visit to the country. The pope's schedule will see the 84-year-old cleric crisscross the country.

He landed in Baghdad on Friday and was greeted by Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, who said Iraqis were eager to welcome Francis' "message of peace and tolerance" and called the visit a meeting between the "minaret and the bells."

The pope's visit includes church services in the capital, Baghdad, and in a stadium in the northern city of Irbil, a meeting with senior Muslim clerics in the southern city of Najaf, and a helicopter ride to the northern city of Mosul. The idea of interfaith fraternity — "we are all brothers" — is the official slogan for the March 5-8 trip.

Iraq's church leaders often say they are threatened with "extinction" in the Muslim-majority country and have predicted local Christian communities will go the same way as Iraq's once-thriving Jewish population. Today, individual accounts suggest that fewer than 10 Jews remain in Baghdad. 

Two Iraqi Christians sit in a church in Baghdad.

The number of Christians living in Iraq has decreased by two-thirds in under two decades

Cradle of civilization

Christians have been present in areas now known as Iraq since around the 1st century AD.

The Bible suggests that the ancient city of Ur — where Pope Francis will pray on Saturday — is the birthplace of Abraham, father of the Abrahamic religions, which include Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Over the centuries, the development of Iraq's Christian community has largely been determined by whoever was in charge, whether that was the Ottomans, Mongols, Persians or Arabs.

Over this century and the last, the Christian minority — like many other minorities in Iraq — has had to deal with discrimination and persecution from the country's Muslim majority and its various leaders.

Ruins of the Great Ziggurat temple in the ancient city of Ur.

A temple in historic Ur, where the Pope will hold an interfaith prayer meeting

Under Saddam Hussein's regime, local Christians, who belong to one of 14 different sects, were tolerated by the mostly secular dictatorship. But after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, as the country descended into sectarian violence, Iraqi Christians were faced with worse treatment.

In increasingly divided communities, local Christians were often suspected of assisting the invading US "crusaders" —  a reference to the centuries-long religious wars that began in the late 11th-century, when Christians came from the west to fight Muslims.

A giant billboard bears portraits of Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Baghdad.

Billboards in Baghdad highlight Pope Francis' upcoming visit with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

Pope's impact weighed 

Most recently, local Christians fled northern districts they had occupied for centuries, after the extremist group known as "Islamic State" took over the capital of Ninawa province, Mosul, and surrounding areas.

Around 1.4 million Christians in the country were counted in a 1987 Iraqi government census. But over the last three decades, their numbers have plummeted as Christians emigrated. Today, there are thought to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Christians left in Iraq.

So will Pope Francis' four-day visit help Iraq's Christians today? Not that much, Bashar Matti Warda, the Chaldean archbishop of Irbil,told CCN, the media office of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.

"It's not going to help the Christians materially or directly," Warda conceded, "because we are really in a very corrupt political and economic system. No doubt about that. He [Pope Francis] will hear nice words ... But when it comes to day-to-day issues, no, I think that's a different story."

Displaced Iraqi Christians shelter at St. Joseph Church in Irbil, northern Iraq

In 2014, displaced Christians fled from Ninawa to take shelter in Irbil when the Islamic State group attacked

'Come live our reality'

Reemon Youssef Matti, an Iraqi Christian living in the Virgin Mary refugee camp in Baghdad after being displaced from his home in Ninawa, invited Pope Francis to his place.

Reemon Youssef Matti, an Iraqi Christian living in the Virgin Mary refugee camp in Baghdad

"Come and see how we live," says Reemon Youssef Matti, an Iraqi Christian

"He shouldn't just go to Baghdad," Matti argued, "and tour the clean streets; or go to places that were specifically set up [for the visit] like a mirage. We want him to come here and live the reality," continued Matti, whose family decided not to return home despite the fact that Iraq started closing camps for the displaced late last year.

"Come see the situation of Christians, come see our conditions. You are the man of peace, come live our reality," he said. 

Around 8,000 Christian families have returned to homes in Ninawa but security remains a problem there, as is the presence of pro-Iran paramilitary groups.

Christians seen as heretics

Life was not necessarily as dangerous as it had been previously for Christians in Iraq, says Mariam, a Christian resident of Baghdad. She and her family had relocated to a different suburb in Baghdad after their church was blown up, she tells DW. Extremist organization al-Qaeda took responsibility for that 2006 attack.

But often, Mariam, who did not give her full name for security reasons, feels her faith is not respected. Her family recently requested that a banner be inscribed with a biblical scripture to commemorate the death of her grandmother.

The signmaker refused.

"They told my brother, 'I won't write this. It's haram [forbidden]. I consider it blasphemy'. Have we reached this level, where we don't respect the beliefs of others?" Mariam asked. 

Youths unfurl a poster welcoming Pope Francis in the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Mosul.

Pope Francis will visit Mosul, a city ravaged by the extremist "Islamic State" militant group

Long-term benefits?

And it is in this sense that many Iraqis believe that Pope Francis' visit will do good.

Irbil's Archbishop Warda believes it will give the Muslim majority pause for thought. "It will raise a lot of questions and thoughts," he said. "Some will be negative. Probably some hardline Muslims will not like it. But I would say others — the majority of Muslims — would like it, would listen, would start digging deep into the history to find out: Who are these Christians? Are they infidels, as we have always heard? What's their contribution?" he said.

"That's the long-term benefit of the visit."

Saad Salloum gives aspeech in Norway.

Political scientist and activist Saad Salloum says diversity is key for Iraq

It is also why Saturday's short, but historic, meeting between Pope Francis and senior Muslim cleric Ali al-Sistani is so important, Saad Salloum, a political scientist and one of the founders of the Iraqi Council for Interfaith Dialogue, told DW.

"Al-Sistani is like the Pope for the Shia [Muslims], his Vatican is Najaf," Salloum said.

Peaceful coexistence?

In February 2019, Pope Francis met with leading Sunni Muslim cleric Ahmed al-Tayeb in Egypt and both men signed a statement advocating peaceful co-existence between religions. No similar declaration is planned with al-Sistani — but Salloum believes the meeting will make a big impression on other Iraqis.

"This will send a strong message to the Shiite minority in the Arab and Islamic world," he told DW.

The pope's visit should also make the country's leaders think more about the importance of diversity in general, said Salloum, something he believes is key to Iraq's future. "Our fortune is not in oil," said the political scientist.

"It is in diversity." 

Ibrahem Saleh contributed to this report from Baghdad. 

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