Despite their terrible suffering, not just in recent years under ISIS, but after centuries of being treated as second-class citizens, Iraqi Christians are happy people. There are two things that are guaranteed to make them smile, if not actually laugh out loud.
The first is to ask them what they think will happen to the foreign ISIS fighters who enslaved and killed so many, when the fighters return to their home countries, such as Britain or France. I asked that question to the Iraqi police general who was guarding me when I got into Mosul in early 2018, probably the first Western priest to visit shortly after most of the ISIS fighters had been driven out. Surrounded by destroyed churches and bombs and bodies under the rubble, my translator asked the general my question. He guffawed and said that the Western governments would provide the fighters with five-star hotel rooms for life and a pension.
The second question guaranteed to provoke humor, although usually tinged with sadness, is the question I asked a senior bishop on my first visit to Iraq in early 2015. I asked the bishop, caring for thousands of displaced Christians living in shipping containers and abandoned buildings in his city, if dialogue with moderate Islam was possible. A wry smile crossed his face, and he gave the same response that I have heard in Iraq every time I have asked the question: “When moderate Islam exists, we can have dialogue.”
The Vatican announced in the last week that Pope Francis will make an apostolic visit to Iraq in early March of 2021. This will be his first foreign visit since the Covid pandemic, and the early date for the visit caught many by surprise. A papal visit has been under discussion for some time—especially since the visit by Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, who spent Christmas in Iraq in 2018.
Christians in the West often imagine that the intense persecution of the Church in Iraq began with the emergence of ISIS in 2014, but that was just the culmination of years of kidnappings, bombings, and murders since the invasion in 2003 and the removal of Saddam Hussein. Christians had moved from Baghdad to the apparently safer areas in the north of Iraq, especially the towns and villages on the Nineveh Plain, where Christians have been since the time of the apostles, long before the emergence of Islam. A large majority of Christians had already left Mosul before ISIS captured the city in the summer of 2014, because the safety and security of Christians were perilous.
Iraqi Christians have felt, since 2003, but especially after the terrors of ISIS, that many in the West, including in the Church, had abandoned them. On more than one occasion, both in Iraq and Syria, I have been told by bishops and clergy, that they believe, deep down, that the Western Church does not really care about them. As the Church in the West discusses global warming and LGBTQ “inclusivity,” an ancient Church faces annihilation.
The prospective visit of Pope Francis, as one Iraqi priest told me this week, is “desperately needed”—and, in the view of many, long overdue. The visit could possibly be the moment when the future of Christianity inside Iraq is decided. The Pope and his advisers will have to steer a very careful course in order for the visit to be a success. The central question is: What is the purpose of the visit?
If (as a senior figure in the Archdiocese of Erbil told me this week) his visit is to give succor and comfort to the Christians who have suffered so much, and to appeal for their right to be treated as equal citizens under the Iraqi constitution, it could make the difference, for the dwindling number of Christians—especially young people—between deciding they have hope and a future in Iraq or leaving forever
If, however, the central purpose of the visit is to accentuate the naive Vatican-speak of “dialogue with moderate Islam,” not only would it be better for the Pope not to go, many on the ground tell me, but he will need to bring tickets for Alitalia so all the Christians in Iraq can find a new home in Italy.
There are several moments in the planned itinerary that will show the direction of the visit. The visit to Ur—the fabled birthplace of the Patriarch Abraham, in present-day Nasiriyah in southern Iraq—would be the perfect place to speak of the heritage of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, rooted in the faith of Abraham, and the need for brotherhood and peace.
In the capital of Baghdad, the Christians and other religious minorities—especially the Yazidis, who suffered even more severely than Christians under ISIS—will expect Pope Francis to vigorously call for equal status and rights for all the citizens of Iraq. He will also visit with the ever-smaller population of Baghdad’s Christians, still being attacked by both Sunni and Shia groups.
The key moment, and the one most fraught with difficulty, will be his visits to the Nineveh Plain and Mosul. In Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, it is likely that the Pope will celebrate a large open-air Mass and thank the Kurdish authorities for receiving more than 120,000 Christians driven from the Nineveh Plain in the summer of 2014.
The Nineveh Plain—where, before the rise of ISIS, many towns such as Qaraqosh, Karamles, and Bartella, were majority Christian—are now in what is called the “disputed territories.” Although nominally controlled by the Iraqi army, the largest and most dangerous presence for Christians is now the number of Shia militia groups, financed and supported by Iran. They have been following a policy of intimidation and ethnic cleansing to try to change the demographics of the entire Nineveh Plain and force the Christians to leave. A significant worry is that the militias will use the papal visit as part of a public-relations campaign, claiming they have provided safety and security for the Christians since the defeat of ISIS—something that is far from the truth.
This will be the moment for Pope Francis to show his identification with the suffering endured by the Christian population, especially the destruction of their towns and churches during the demonic times under ISIS control.
It is rumored that he will visit Mosul only briefly, to see the destroyed churches. That might be wise, because Mosul is still very unsafe for Christians. However, if he goes there, it will be hugely significant and necessary for Francis to visit the Church of the Annunciation. It’s the only functioning church in Mosul, with the only resident priest. The church, a prefabricated building, was in one of the huge refugee camps in Erbil. It was transported to replace the original church destroyed by ISIS. Outside, sprayed on the walls, when I visited the bomb site in early 2018, was the graffiti “property of the Islamic State” (see photo) and the symbol for nun, the Arabic “N,” which ISIS used to identify Christian homes and properties and which has since become a symbol of solidarity with persecuted Christians throughout the world.
The last significant action the Pope could take while visiting Iraq, and especially Nineveh, would be to beatify some of the martyrs killed for their faith since 2003, including Father Ragheed Ganni and his bishop, Paulos Faraj Raho. Father Ganni and Bishop Raho were killed in Mosul in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Some, including the exponents of the “dialogue” with peaceful Islam, have said that a beatification during the papal visit would be a “provocative act.” For the Christians of Iraq, it would be neither provocative nor aggressive but merely an acknowledgment of their terrible suffering and a witness to their faith.
At this moment, with Covid causing severe problems across Iraq, it is still unsure whether the visit—which is just over two months away—will even be possible. There’s little doubt that, if Pope Francis can negotiate all the difficulties of what one priest described to me as “a chaotic state,” he will bring hope and strength to a Christian population whose steadfastness and faith in the face of severe persecution has been an example to the world and an inspiration to those in the West who need an example of Christian fortitude.