Our Lady of Salvation Church lies down a dusty side road off Baghdad’s bustling Nidhal Street.
Sloe-eyed Iraqi soldiers brandishing Kalashnikovs sat on their haunches outside.
As I approached the army checkpoint, one of them stubbed out his cigarette and reluctantly stumbled to his feet to peer at my press card. He waved me through with a: “welcome Mr John.”
The church, with its unmistakable whalebone arch, was the scene of one of the worst atrocities carried out by Al Qaeda linked gunmen when they slaughtered dozens of worshippers and two priests in 2010.
The towering, bomb proof blast walls were still painted with naive murals of a smiling Pope entwined with the Iraqi national flag.
Inside the church I found worshipper, Arbella, 58, and asked her if the papal pilgrimage to Iraq in March 2021 had made any real difference to her life and those of Baghdad’s shrinking Christian communities.
“The Pope’s journey to see us was very brave and inspirational and I cried when he arrived at our church,” she said with a catch in her voice.
“But to be honest…nothing has really changed for the better for us since he came here.”
“My Muslim neighbours still look down on me and, as a Christian, I still live in fear, but I’m too old to move away now.”
It was the same story at nearby St Joseph’s Chaldean Cathedral, which had also been on the Pope’s itinerary.
70-year old Bassim told me: ” It’s got a lot worse for Christians in the last twelve months. People are leaving and our churches are emptying slowly.”
I asked the Vatican press office for comment about follow up to the papal mission to Iraq and was referred to religious leaders on the ground, so I met with Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako who was one of architects of the Pope’s historic mission which included a ground breaking meeting with the leader of Iraq’s Shias, Grand Ayatollah Sistani
When I sat down with the 73-year old Cardinal he was still moved as he recalled the Holy Father emerging from the plane in Baghdad a year ago.
“The first thing I saw was his white habit and his wide smile. I immediately thought of the dove of peace or an Old Testament prophet,” he said.
“Then, in his first speech to Iraqi politicians and religious leaders the Pope talked about brotherhood among Christians and Muslims and I was suddenly filled with hope. It was incredible.”
I put it to Sako that these were laudable, comforting words, but in the year since: had the Pope’s visit brought any benefit to Iraq’s persecuted Christians?
“When the Pope came here physical attacks on Christians had virtually stopped and I can say there is no violence now towards our people,” he replied.
“Also the Pope’s trip revitalised a special committee which investigates hate speech against any religious group.”
“Calls in mosques for violence against Christians is reported and looked into.”
I wondered if the Pope’s courage in traveling to Iraq had inspired thousands of Iraqi Christians who fled to countries like Lebanon, or further afield to Australia and the United States, to return?
“No, they haven’t come back,” said Sako sadly.
“Their return is just a dream. Christians left Iraq looking for shelter and freedom.The parents, in particular, may want to come back, but why would they? There is no security here, no dignity, no jobs.”
“They have new lives now with children in schools, they’ll never come back.”
In the context of the Pope’s visit Sako believes it is time, after 2000 years, for a new beginning for Christianity.
He continued: “One thing I keep repeating – and I’ve said this to the Pope – is that Muslims are part of our mission and we must love them. Also if Christians want to convert to Islam that’s fine. If Muslims want to convert to Christianity, that’s also ok.”
“Perhaps now is the time to separate religion and the state and build a secular state in Iraq,” he said, “one that is not hostile to religion, but rather respects all religions while not including religion in politics. I think this would guarantee coexistence.”
Regarding the Pope’s message of fraternity I asked the Cardinal could he find it in his heart to forgive the jihadists who slaughtered so many Christians or drove them from their homes?
Without hesitation Sako replied : ‘It’s hard but, yes I can, as a Christian, of course I can – as Jesus told Peter we should.”
“He or she who forgives is stronger than those taking revenge.”
I was speaking with Sako at time of simmering tensions in Iraq. Almost five months since a general election Iraqi politics are in turmoil with Shia, Sunni and Kurd factions fiercely squabbling over the Presidency – that’s even before a new government is formed.
The power vacuum is potentially leaving Christians and other minority religions, once again, vulnerable to attack.
“It’s terrible,” said Sako.”There’s no one in charge and militias are growing in strength, which is a big threat to our communities.”
In the last twelve months since the Pope was here more Christians joined the exodus from Iraq or sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan.
There’s one lone Christian remaining in the southern Iraq city of Nasiriyah – population half a million. He has to travel to Basrah or Baghdad to pray.
And Reverend Canon Faiz Jejez at St George’s Anglican Church, Baghdad, was very gloomy as he told me there were now no Iraqi Anglicans in the country.
Jejez also claimed all Christians would be gone from Iraqi soil in ten years.
I wondered what was Sako’s vision about the future of Christianity in Iraq.
Sako smiled: “We’ll always be here. There’s around 500,000 of us now and I hope we’ll grow.”
Closing our conversation I asked about the proposed beatification of two priests murdered in the attack on the Lady of Salvation Church in 2010.
Father Taher Saadallah Boutros and Father Wassim Sabih tried to save their parishioners after 80 were taken hostage. Heroically Bourtros told them: “Kill me but let the worshippers go in peace. “The gunman responded: “Convert to Islam because in any case you will die,” and then they shot him in the head.
“Beatification is a long process,” said Sako,”but we aim to have it completed this year for the two priests and for some worshippers who were killed.”
Cardinal Sako is a warm, generous man with a kind heart and he has led Iraqi Christians through unimaginable horrors. It was his courage and determination which helped make Pope Francis’s mission happen
However, as I said my goodbyes I realised that although the Pope’s visit had turned world attention on the plight of Iraq’s Christians, very little has changed for the better in the last twelve months for persecuted Chaldean and Syriac communities who now face possible fresh threats from Muslim militias.
An Anglican aide in Baghdad put it starkly: “The Pope’s visit brought little benefit to Christians – but at least it didn’t make matters worse.”
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