News Analysis

A turning-point for Iraqi Christians? Not necessarily

Iraq’s urbane and impressive new president, Barham Salih, has invited the Pope to visit Ur, home of Abraham, in 2019. The invitation was extended to Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, during his Christmas visit to Baghdad in which he concelebrated the Christmas vigil Mass in Baghdad’s cathedral. The Iraqi cabinet, during that same visit, voted to make Christmas Day a public holiday in Iraq.

Is it, as commentator John Allen put it, a “turning point” in Vatican-Iraqi relations? Up to a point. Salih (pictured below with Cardinal Parolin), an Anglophile and secular Kurd whom I knew when I worked in Baghdad over a decade ago, is one of Iraq’s most forward-looking politicians. He would surely be keen to foster good relations with the Vatican; and he has little in common with violent sectarian militias, corrupt and bigoted local powerbrokers and terrorist groups who have collectively depopulated Iraq of its once million-plus, and ancient, Christian community.

The problem, though, was never in the official relationship between Iraq’s president and the Vatican. Salih’s predecessor was an almost equally urbane Kurdish politician called Jalal Talabani. The problem is that the president is largely a figurehead, with most executive power resting with the prime minister.

The office holder has little in common with the militias and little power over them. The Kurds are a political force in their own right, but are on the back foot since an unsuccessful attempt to hold a referendum on independence. Their close ties with the United States mean less in the era of Trump-led isolationism than they used to.

The real threat to Christians in Iraq comes mainly from the Iran-backed Hashd militias and the ISIS/al-Qaeda remnants which have not been truly obliterated. Dealing with them is a whole different kettle of fish from building closer ties with Iraq’s president.

It is, however, a good sign that the Chaldean patriarch, who leads Iraq’s largest Christian community, successfully engineered Parolin’s visit (and perhaps played a hand in the earlier meeting of President Salih with Pope Francis in November).

The patriarch must oversee the effort to protect and rehouse Iraq’s remaining Christians and provide them with livelihoods: so it is a very good start if he is dynamic and has the goodwill and trust of Iraq’s president and the Vatican.

Parolin also stressed the importance that Pope Francis gives to Christian/Muslim relations, pointing to forthcoming papal visits to the United Arab Emirates and Morocco as examples. Both Morocco and the UAE have made efforts to crack down on religious extremism: the UAE recently launched a Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies and has made 2019 a “Year of Tolerance”; Morocco has an Institute for Training of Imams and Institute for African Islamic Religious Scholars, both aimed at countering extremism among the clergy. Neither plays a big role in Iraq, but winning allies in the Muslim world may ultimately pay dividends for the region’s diminishing Christian population.