On Friday, Pope Francis began the first-ever papal visit to Iraq with a call for the country to preserve its centuries-old diversity, urging Muslims to accept their Christian neighbors as a valuable resource and urging the country’s struggling Christian community to persevere despite its small size.
After a year of being under COVID-19 lockdown in Vatican City, Francis has resumed his globe-trotting papacy, despite the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns. Over the weekend, his main goal is to persuade Iraq’s declining Christian community, which was brutally oppressed by the Islamic State group and continues to face persecution from the Muslim majority, to remain and help rebuild the country torn apart by wars and strife.
“We will be able to begin a successful process of reconstruction and leave to future generations a stronger, more just, and more compassionate world only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family,” Francis told Iraqi authorities in his welcoming address.
The 84-year-old Pope, like his hosts, wore a facemask on the flight from Rome and on all of his protocol visits. Despite the country’s worsening COVID-19 epidemic, the masks fell off when the leaders sat down to speak, and social distancing and other health initiatives seemed lax at the airport and on the streets of Baghdad.
The government is eager to brag about the relative stability it has gained since the fall of the so-called “caliphate” of ISIS. Despite this, security precautions were taken.
Francis was chauffeured around Baghdad in an armoured black BMWi750, flanked by rows of motorcycle officers, who enjoys plunging into crowds and traveling in an open-sided popemobile. It was thought to be the first time Francis had used a bulletproof vehicle, both to defend himself and to avoid crowds.
Iraqis, on the other hand, seemed eager to receive Francis and the worldwide publicity that his visit brought. Some stood along the roadside to applaud his motorcade. Francis was portrayed on banners and posters in central Baghdad with the slogan “We are all Brothers.”
The high security cordons frustrated those who had hoped to get close.
“It had always been a dream of mine to meet the Pope and have him pray for my sick daughter. But this wish was not fulfilled,” said Raad William Georges, a 52-year-old father of three who claims he was turned away from seeing Francis during his visit to the Karrada neighborhood’s Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he lamented. “I’ll try tomorrow; I know it won’t work out, but I’ll try.”
Francis told reporters on board the papal plane that he was glad to be back on the road, and that his first trip was to Iraq, Abraham’s traditional birthplace, which is revered by Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
He described the journey as “emblematic.” “It is also a responsibility to a country that has been tormented for many years.”
Francis was clearly limping during the afternoon, indicating that his sciatica nerve pain, which has flared recently and forced him to cancel events, was troubling him. As he ascended the stairs to the cathedral, he nearly tripped and needed the assistance of an aide.
Francis said Christians and other minorities in Iraq deserve the same rights and freedoms as the Shiite Muslim majority at a pomp-filled meeting with President Barham Salih at a palace within Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
“The religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity that has characterized Iraqi society for millennia is a valuable resource to be drawn upon, not an impediment to be overcome,” he said. “Today, Iraq is called upon to demonstrate to all, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, rather than causing conflict, can contribute to harmonious cooperation in society.”
Salih, an ethnic Kurdish member of Iraq’s minority, echoed his call.
Salih said, “The East cannot be imagined without Christians.” “Continued Christian migration from the east would have disastrous implications for the capacity of people from the same area to live together.”
Francis’ visit to Iraq is part of a long-term initiative to strengthen ties with Muslims, which has intensified in recent years thanks to his friendship with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, a prominent Sunni cleric. It will hit a new high when he meets with Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a figure respected in Iraq and beyond, on Saturday.
The pontiff is in Iraq, where he is taking his message of peace to a nation rich in ethnic and religious diversity but profoundly scarred by hate. It has seen brutal sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunni Muslims, conflicts and tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and militant massacres against minorities including Christians and Yazidis since the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The few Christians who remain are wary of their Muslim neighbors and face prejudice that predates IS.
Iraq’s Christians, who date back almost to the time of Christ, follow a variety of rituals and denominations, with the Chaldean Catholic Church being the main, followed by Syriac Catholics, Assyrians, and a number of Orthodox churches. They used to make up a sizable minority in Iraq, with an estimated population of 1.4 million. However, during the post-2003 unrest, when Sunni militants often attacked Christians, their numbers started to decline.
When IS swept across northern Iraq in 2014, including historically Christian towns across the Nineveh plains, they were dealt another blow. Residents were forced to flee to the nearby Kurdish area or further afield due to their radical form of Islam.
Few have returned — estimates put the number of Christians in Iraq at less than 300,000, with many of them already displaced from their homes. Those who returned to their homes and churches find them destroyed. Shiite militias in charge of some areas have many people feeling threatened.
There are many practical difficulties. Many Iraqi Christians are unable to find jobs, blaming racist practices in Iraq’s largest employer, the government. Shiite political leaders also largely dominated public positions.
Iraq’s oppressed Christians are the epitome of the “martyred church,” which the pope has revered since he was a young Jesuit aspiring to be a missionary in Asia.
Pope Francis is covered in detail.
Francis prayed and honoured the victims of one of the worst Christian massacres, the 2010 assault on Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral by Islamic militants, which killed 58 people.
He urged Christians in Iraq to persevere, saying that the country’s Catholic minority, “though small as a mustard seed, continues to enrich the life of society as a whole” — a metaphor found in both the Bible and the Quran.
On Sunday, Francis will pay tribute to the dead in a Mosul square surrounded by shells of demolished churches and meet with a small Christian group that has returned to the town of Qaraqosh, where he will bless a church that was vandalized and used as a firing range by IS.
Iraq is experiencing a new wave of coronavirus infections, with the majority of the new cases being linked to a highly infectious strain first reported in the United Kingdom. Most Iraqis have not been vaccinated, raising concerns about the trip’s ability to spread diseases. Francis, the Vatican delegation, and traveling media have all been vaccinated.
The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have played down the challenge, insisting on social segregation, crowd control, and other health-care measures.
To some extent, they were, but that didn’t take away from the joy of ordinary Iraqis — Christians and Muslims alike — at Francis’ visit.
”We can’t articulate our excitement because this is unquestionably a landmark event that we will never forget,” Rafif Issa said. “All Iraqis, not just Christians, are happy. We pray that today will be a blessed day for us and all Iraqis.”