POPE FRANCIS ENCOURAGES IRAQ’S EMBATTLED CHRISTIANS IN HISTORIC VISIT
By Alex Pollock
Pope Francis opened the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday [5 March] with a plea for the country to protect its centuries-old diversity, urging Muslims to embrace their Christian neighbours as a precious resource and asking the embattled Christian community – “though small like a mustard seed” – to persevere. (Associated Press)
Pope Francis aimed during the four-day visit to provide encouragement to the battered Iraqi Christian community and to urge their Muslim neighbours to provide peace and protection. Through meetings with local leaders and communities, he spoke on the possibility of the rebuilding of cities and reconciliation between religious groups.
Stops during his visit included Baghdad, Erbil (the autonomous region of Kurdistan), Mosul, and Qaraqosh. He met with leaders and community members in each location, speaking of peace and reconciliation. Pope Francis’ homily in Baghdad focussed on the Beatitudes, taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, that in God’s eyes, those who are blessed are not the wealthy, powerful or famous, but “the poor, those who mourn, the persecuted.” Iraqi President Barham Salih and Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein attended the liturgy, which included a prayer for government officials, asking God to help them be “examples of honesty for the common good” and “to know how to collaborate for a renewed world in which liberty and harmony reign.” In Mosul, one of Iraq’s most devastated cities, he took time to pray for the victims of the Islamic State’s deadly occupation. He stood in the city square, surrounded by four destroyed churches, and encouraged the Muslim and Christian communities to live in unity with each other.
He also visited the small Christian community of Qaraqosh. Most of this Christian-majority town’s residents fled during the 2014 Islamic State invasion, and very few have returned. The Vatican’s aim is to encourage Christians to return to Iraq and take part in the rebuilding of their communities.
Overall, the Pope was welcomed by members of all religious groups with many people lining the streets holding signs that read, “We are all Brothers.” In a meeting with Barham Salih, Iraq’s president, the Pope highlighted the importance of all minority groups in Iraq being able to live with the same rights and protections as the majority. “The religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to eliminate,” he said. “Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious cooperation in the life of society.”
Pope Francis also met with top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in what was a landmark meeting between two highly influential religious leaders. This meeting followed previous conversations that Pope Francis had with leading Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, to continue to strengthen the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Muslim world. Following his meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani, the Vatican released a statement: “The Pope thanked the cleric for speaking up — together with the Shiite community — in defence of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships.”
Following the summit, the Pope spoke to a crowd of religious leaders at the ‘Plain of Ur,’ the suspected location of where God revealed Himself to Abraham, who is respected by members of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths.
The situation in Iraq
There were concerns over the Pope’s safety during his visit, due to ongoing violence in the country. While Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State in 2017 (the group had controlled much of northern and western Iraq from 2014-2017), and the group no longer officially controls any territory, there continue to be sporadic attacks throughout the country, especially in the northern regions. In January, a Sunni militant group carried out an attack in Baghdad, killing 32 people in one of the deadliest such attacks in years.
The battle to defeat the IS, and take back control, devastated much of the country. “Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups,” Pope Francis said.
Christians often bore the brunt of the violence. Churches in several cities were destroyed, and Christians were often the target of violent attacks. Security in Iraq has improved since the defeat of the IS in 2017, but violent attacks have continued, especially as tensions rose between the US and Iran, often on Iraqi soil, due to Iran’s presence in Iraq (in the form of Shiite militias).
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Iraq’s Christian community – one of the oldest in the world – has been particularly hard-hit by years of war. Before the US invasion of 2003, Iraqi Christians numbered an estimated 1.5 million.
Through years of war and uncertainty, the number of Iraqi Christians has dwindled significantly, with the most recent Islamic State-era seeing many forced to flee after the destruction of their homes, churches, and communities. Thousands of Christians fled Mosul and ancient communities across the Nineveh Plains, during the years of the IS occupation, and very few have returned. Estimates suggest that there are only a few hundred thousand Christians left in Iraq. Those that remain are heavily restricted in the practice of their faith (especially sharing the gospel) and face high levels of persecution. Christians in Iraq also face discrimination in other areas of life that are controlled by Islamic political elites, such as public sector employment.
It is this constant, long-running oppression of the Christian community that makes the Pope’s recent visit such a bright event for Christians in Iraq. The Pope’s main message was one of peace, unity, and reconciliation. The meeting between Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani demonstrated solidarity and offered hope that peace and reconciliation could be achieved.
Mr al-Sistani is one of the few Muslim clerics who believes that religion should not run the state. His statements, during the Pope’s visit, that Iraqi Christians should be able to live with the same rights as everyone else, are truly significant. Mr al-Sistani is one of the most respected clerics in Iraq, and his viewpoints carry significant weight. If practical changes can be brought about from the meeting between the two leaders, there is hope for a much more peaceful existence for Iraqi Christians. The hope was felt throughout the Christian community in Iraq.
An INcontext contact who pastors a church in Mosul described the hope and encouragement that the Iraqi church is feeling. “To know that one of the most influential Christian leaders in the world came here, it’s encouraging and brings hope for a better future for Christians in our region,” he said. “His challenges to all Muslim leaders and government officials and his public prayers and speeches in the region will seed peace and reconciliation in our traumatised communities.”
Another church leader summarised: “The Pope’s visit went very well, it was well organised, and had a positive impact on the nation. Everyone respected his visit, and for three days all Iraqi satellite stations had live coverage. I pray that the world will, as a result, also have a better idea about our nation.” He also expressed his concern for the Church in Iraq: “The Pope was bringing a message of peace and unity between Christians and Muslims, but what is needed is peace between Iraqi Christians first.”
Some other leaders expressed concern that the Pope’s visit – while promoting peace and unity – might only benefit the Catholic Church, leaving the evangelical community with all its current restrictions. A pastor in Erbil, Kurdistan, worries that the government would start favouring the Catholic Church over Protestant churches. He explained: “This might bring strength to the Catholic Church. On one hand, this might be affecting the evangelical body because we might be persecuted or have our registration with the government taken away because the Catholic Church will have more support from the government.” He cites concern that the ‘protection’ of the Protestant community could entail forcing evangelicals to keep their gospel activities inside the walls of the church buildings, hindering outreach activities. “As the evangelical body, we preach the Gospel and proclaim Jesus Christ to the Muslims, and we have seen many of them come to the Lord,” he said.
Despite this concern, the Church can be hopeful, as the Pope’s visit provided much-needed encouragement for Iraqi believers. It drew the world’s attention to the plight of Iraqi Christians, while also demonstrating that the global Church intends to continue to stand with its Iraqi brothers and sisters in prayer, and in action.
“Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.” – Pope Francis (in a speech during his visit to Iraq).
Please pray with us:
- For practical steps to be taken to promote peace between Iraq’s different religious groups
- For the Iraqi Christian diaspora to return
- For the Iraqi Church to be united and encouraged to continue boldly declaring Jesus’ name in Iraq
Image: Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS