In Iraq, Pope Francis was a man on a mission. The question is: Will it prove to have been successful?
By John Cookson in Baghdad
Few Popes in modern times have succeeded in bringing about fundamental change to the lives of millions.
St John Paul II did. His repeated trips to Poland — there were nine of them, five of which were between 1979 and 1991 — inspired Poles to rise up against Communism and went some way to bringing about the collapse of the Iron Curtain, although it was Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who finished off the job.
Can Pope Francis rescue Iraq’s impossibly suffering and unnaturally diminished Christian population?
Three things emerge from the three days he spent in Iraq: He’s trying; he trying to accomplish his goal by drawing Islam and Christianity together; he’s trying to draw Islam and Christianity together by drawing Muslims and Christians together.
As he flies back to Rome today I’m sure he realises the task he’s set himself is mind bogglingly difficult.
Christians have been persecuted in Iraq for generations, including suffering genocide under the Ottomans.
In recent decades it was ironically only during the reign of tyrant Saddam Hussein that followers of Jesus had an easier time of it.
Saddam’s cabinet included deputy prime minister and foreign minister Tariq Aziz, who was born Mikhail Yuhanna to a Chaldean Catholic family in northern Iraq. Anglicans fared well too under Saddam. I recall St George’s in Haifa Street, Baghdad where services conducted by Canon Andrew White, the so-called: ‘Vicar of Baghdad,’ were always packed,
In the town of Barzan, in the Kurdish north, there’s a plaque near the grave of the father of modern day Kurdistan, Mustafa Barzani, which neatly summed up the mood of the age. It read: ‘Kurdistan is a place of all religions.’
But with Saddam gone in 2003 the jihadists of Al Qaeda – and later Islamic State (ISIS) – took advantage of a power vacuum and gained a foothold in Iraq.
Jihadist attacks on Christian communities were horrific beyond belief. I well remember reporting on the bombing of a Chaldean church in the Karrada district of Baghdad in 2004 after a massive suicide truck bomb. When the cameraman and I arrived we found what was left of the congregation scattered on the street outside – limbs and bits of torsos hung on nearby telephone lines.
A decade later ISIS’s campaign against all faiths other than theirs was brutal, but it was their assault on Christians that shocked the world including the wholesale desecration of churches shrines and worst of all: forcing families to convert or die.
ISIS may have been largely neutralised but sickening random attacks on Christians, predominantly Chaldeans, continue in Iraq.
A family of three, a doctor, his wife and mother, were stabbed to death in their home in Baghdad in March 2018.
In the same month, another Christian was shot dead in front of his house in the city and a Christian convert was killed by his father-in-law after he became aware of his conversion.
Beyond the Iraqi capital, fifty Christians, many of them women, from Qaraqosh, 50 kilometers from Erbil, are still missing, kidnapped by ISIS cells who remain active.
Meanwhile in 2021 there were multiple reports of Christian women in Iraq being sexually harassed and assaulted by Shia militias.
So that’s the backdrop to Pope Francis’s twin campaigns to reassert the presence of Christians in Iraq and bring the country’s religious factions together.
The question is can he succeed?
The initial point to make is he was brave enough to make the trip to a country in turmoil.
Few foreign leaders have travelled to Iraq in recent years due to security issues and even then it’s only to the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.
So the Pope has to be applauded for brushing away security fears and ordinary Iraqis I’ve spoken to have expressed their appreciation he came to their country – in their eyes he’s a man to be admired and respected.
On his first day on Iraqi soil under the banner of “You are all brothers,” the Pope embarked on his first task of giving massive support to Baghdad’s imperiled Christian community by visiting Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral where ten years ago an attack by Al-Qaeda left 58 dead, 48 of whom were Catholic.
In an address he acknowledged bringing Iraq’s religious communities together as part of a healing process was a major ask.
“This task is not easy,” he said. “It demands hard work and a commitment on the part of all to set aside rivalries and contrapositions and instead to speak with one another from our deepest identity as fellow children of the one God and Creator.”
Day two, and the Pope pulled off a master stroke by paying a call on Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani who is not only one of the most revered clerics in Islam but is also the leader of Iraq’s Shia, the country’s dominant religion.
Vatican and Iraqi Government officials had worked tirelessly for months to set the meeting up and it was only confirmed days before.
Media were excluded and it was only from a short video clip one could judge the mood of the meeting was good.
Afterwards Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Matteo Bruni, called the encounter “an occasion for the Pope to thank Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani for speaking up – together with the Shiite community – in defence of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years, and for affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.”
And whilst the official statements about the 50 minute meeting were bland the whole point of it was about the imagery of two seriously important religious figures being in the same room together and clasping hands at the end.
That sent a strong signal to Iraq’s Shia Muslims: that it’s OK to have dialogue with Christians — and it was a powerful scene-setter for an interreligious ceremony in the ancient city of Ur, where the Pope prayed with Iraqis of diverse religious traditions.
Shia Sheikh Ali Naseriyah told me afterwards: “My view is that if Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani met with the Pope that sends a message to the rest of the Shias that dialogue with Christians is the future and the right thing to do.”
The Pope seemed to catch the mood of the moment too.
“It is up to us to have the courage to lift up our eyes and look at the stars, the stars that our father Abraham saw, the stars of the promise,” Pope Francis said.
On the third day of the Pope’s whirlwind pilgrimage the pontiff brought more joy to Christians in Mosul and Qaraqosh by conducting prayers in the rubble of conflict when thousands of Christians died and their churches desecrated during ISIS’s brutal rule.
So, as the Pope heads back to the Vatican, he can be confident he’s done a good job of showing support to Christians and helping create conditions to build the foundations for further dialogue with Shia Islam.
On paper, it looks good for his legacy.
Iraq, however, is a maddeningly unpredictable place, a witches’ brew of political and religious factions constantly vying for power, with a population in revolt.
The so-called October Revolution, which began in 2019, when the youth of Iraq rose up against rampant government corruption and unemployment, has not gone away. It is still bubbling in cities like Nasiriyah. If elections do go ahead this year there could well be a change of government.
And the Pope may have established a working relationship with Grand Ayatollah Sistani, but he’s 90 with a heart condition, and no one is sure who Sistani’s replacement will be.
Meanwhile, Iran remains the dominant outside force in Iraq. Senior Shia clerics including the Islamic Republic’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni will be chewing the carpet over the Pope’s meeting with Sistani, which implies the latter is superior to Khameni.
Media in Iran, which are effectively state controlled, covered Pope Francis’ visit with cautious factual reporting devoid of opinion and analysis, while most conservative papers ignored it all together.
So, one shouldn’t fall out of one’s chair to see Teheran beginning now to undo the good work Sistani and Pope Francis have wrought. That’s the harsh reality of the fractious Middle East.
Bringing about change in Iraq is always a long-term project. It will only be years from now — perhaps after Francis has left us — that we will know whether the ‘pilgrim’ Pope Francis’s tricky visit to Iraq was worth the risk.
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