Pope urges Iraq to embrace its Christians on historic visit

Published 6:05 pm Friday, March 5, 2021

BAGHDAD — Pope Francis urged Iraqis on Friday to treat their Christian brothers as a precious resource to protect, not an “obstacle” to eliminate as he opened the first-ever papal visit to Iraq with a plea for tolerance and fraternity among Christians and Muslims.

Francis brushed aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to resume his globe-trotting papacy after a yearlong hiatus spent under COVID-19 lockdown in Vatican City. His primary aim over the weekend is to encourage Iraq’s dwindling number of Christians, who were violently persecuted by the Islamic State group and still face discrimination by the Shiite majority, to stay and help rebuild the country devastated by wars and strife.

“Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world,” Francis told Iraqi authorities in his welcoming address.

Email newsletter signup

The 84-year-old pope donned a facemask during the flight from Rome and throughout all his protocol visits, as did his hosts. But the masks came off when the leaders sat down to talk, and social distancing and other health measures appeared lax at the airport and on the streets of Baghdad, despite the country’s worsening COVID-19 outbreak.

Francis, who relishes plunging into crowds and likes to travel in an open-sided popemobile, was transported around Baghdad in what Iraqi security officials said was an armored black BMWi750, flanked by rows of police on siren-blaring motorcycles. It was believed to be the first time Francis had used a bullet-proof car.

Iraqis seemed keen to welcome Francis and the global attention his visit was bringing, with some lining the road to cheer his motorcade and banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers.” In central Tahrir Square, a mock tree was erected emblazoned with the Vatican emblem, while Iraqi and Vatican flags lined empty streets.

The government is eager to show off the relative security it has achieved after years of wars and its defeat of the IS insurgency.

“This visit is really important to us and provides a good perspective of Iraq because the whole world will be watching,” Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s joint operations, said in explaining the increased security.

At Baghdad international airport, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi greeted Francis as he descended from the Alitalia charter that landed shortly before 2 p.m. (1100GMT). Francis was visibly limping in a sign his sciatica, which has flared and forced him to cancel events recently, was possibly bothering him.

He told reporters aboard the papal plane that he was happy to be resuming his travels again.

“This is an emblematic journey,” he said. “It is also a duty to a land tormented by many years.”

Francis’ first main event was a pomp-filled courtesy visit with President Barham Salih at the Baghdad palace inside the heavily fortified Green Zone. Afterward, Francis told Salih and other Iraqi authorities that Christians and other minorities shouldn’t be considered a second-class citizen in Iraq but deserve to have the same rights and protections as the Shiite Muslim 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.”

That’s a tough sell even for Christians, given the few Christians who remain in Iraq harbor a lingering mistrust of their Muslim neighbors and face discrimination that long predated IS.

Salih echoed his call and praised Francis for coming to make it in person in Iraq despite the pandemic and security concerns.

“The East cannot be imagined without Christians,” Salih said. “The continued migration of Christians from the countries of the east will have dire consequences for the ability of the people from the same region to live together.”

Christians once constituted a sizeable minority in Iraq, estimated at around 1.4 million. But their numbers began to fall after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein opened a wave of instability in which militants repeatedly targeted Christians.

They received a further blow when IS militants in 2014 swept through northern Iraq, including traditionally Christian towns across the Nineveh plains, some of which date from the time of Christ. Their extremist version of Islam forced residents to flee to the neighboring Kurdish region or further afield.

Few have returned — estimates suggest there are fewer than 300,000 Christians still in Iraq and many of those remain displaced from their homes. Those who did go back to their towns found homes and churches destroyed. Many feel intimidated by Shiite militias controlling some areas.

There are practical struggles, as well. Many Iraqi Christians cannot find work and blame discriminatory practices in the public sector, Iraq’s largest employer. Since 2003, public jobs have been mostly controlled by majority Shiite political elites, leaving Christians feeling marginalized.

Francis called for Iraqi authorities to grant all religious communities “recognition, respect, rights and protection,” including the right to participate in public life “as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities.”

For the pope, who has often traveled to places where Christians are a persecuted minority, Iraq’s beleaguered Christians are the epitome of the “martyred church” that he has admired ever since he was a young Jesuit seeking to be a missionary in Asia.

In Iraq, Francis seeks to not only honor its martyrs but deliver a message of reconciliation and fraternity. It is in keeping with his long-standing effort to improve relations with the Muslim world that have accelerated in recent years with his friendship with a leading Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb. And it will reach a new high with his meeting Saturday with  Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a figure revered in Iraq and beyond.

Later Friday, Francis prayed at the Baghdad church that was the site of one of the worst massacres of Christians,  the 2010 attack by Islamic militants that left 58 people dead. On Sunday, he will honor the dead in a Mosul square surrounded by shells of destroyed churches and meet with the small Christian community that returned to Qaraqosh, where he will bless their church that was used as a firing range by IS.

The visit comes as Iraq is seeing a new spike in coronavirus infections, with most new cases traced to the highly contagious variant first identified in Britain. The 84-year-old Francis, the Vatican delegation and travelling media have been vaccinated; most Iraqis have not, raising questions about the potential for the trip to fuel infections.

The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have downplayed the threat of the virus and insisted that social distancing, crowd control and other health care measures will be enforced. The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said this week the important thing is for Iraqis to know that the pope came to Iraq as an “act of love.”

The Vatican and the pope have frequently insisted on the need to preserve Iraq’s ancient Christian communities and create the security, economic and social conditions for those who have left to return.

But that hasn’t necessarily translated into reality.

“I am the only priest in Mosul. Every Sunday I hold mass at 9 a.m., and only around 70 people attend,” said the Rev. Raed Adil Kelo, parish priest of the Church of the Annunciation in the onetime de-facto IS capital.

Before 2003, Mosul’s Christian population was 50,000, he said. It had already dwindled to 2,000 before IS overran northern Iraq.

He doesn’t expect more to return, but he said Francis’ visit would have immeasurable importance for those who stayed.

“This visit will bring peace to Iraq” he said.