Pope Francis begins a historic visit to Iraq on Friday, the first by a pontiff to the birthplace of the Eastern Churches from which more than a million Christians have fled in the past 20 years.
The Pope’s visit has a highly symbolic value given the importance of Iraqi Christians in the history of the faith and their cultural and linguistic heritage dating back to the days of ancient Babylon, nearly 4,000 years ago.
The systematic persecution of Iraqi Christians at the hands of first Al Qaeda and then ISIS in recent years has pushed tens of thousands of people into the diaspora and threatens the survival of the community.
Francis will meet the declining Christian communities of Baghdad, Mosul and Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city on the Nineveh Plains, where, in 2014, the ISIL armed group wiped out remnants of the Christian presence that had survived the violent al-Qaeda campaigns, causing tens of thousands to flee and seek refuge in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of northern Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
In Erbil, the Pope will meet the Kurdish authorities and some of the 150,000 Christian refugees from central Iraq who have found refuge there.
“We hope that the Pope’s visit will draw attention to the tragedy of Christians in the East and encourage them to stay,” Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church of Iraqi descent, said on Wednesday at the meeting. ‘a press conference.
“It will also bring a message of brotherhood to other Iraqi faiths – that religion should not divide but unite and that we are all Iraqis and equal citizens.”
Beginning of the diaspora
Before the 2003 US invasion, Christians of different faiths numbered approximately 1.6 million in Iraq. Today, there are less than 300,000, according to figures provided by the Chaldean Church. Since then, 58 churches have been damaged or destroyed and more than 1,000 Iraqi Christians have been killed for their faith.
Under dictator Saddam Hussein, Christian communities were tolerated and did not face significant security threats, despite facing discrimination.
The diaspora began after the 2003 US invasion and the chaos that ensued when Al Qaeda launched a campaign of targeted assassinations and kidnappings of priests and bishops, and attacks on churches and Christian gatherings.
In October 2006, an Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, was beheaded and in 2008 the group kidnapped and killed Archbishop Paulos Farah Rahho in Mosul. That same year, another priest and three worshipers were killed inside a church.
In 2010, 48 worshipers were killed in a Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, where the pope will hold a public meeting on Friday. In 2014, as ISIS occupied Mosul and the Nineveh plains, the group destroyed more than 30 churches, while the remaining buildings were used as administrative centers, courts or prisons, many of which were subsequently bombed as the US-led coalition fought ISIL.
Upon arriving in Mosul, ISIL called on Christians to convert to Islam, pay a tax, or be beheaded. Thousands of people have fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and neighboring countries.
“When ISIS arrived, people only had seconds to gather their things and flee,” Father Karam Shamasha, the reverend of St George’s Chaldean Church of Telskuf in Nineveh, told Al Jazeera.
Initially, Christians in the villages of Nineveh were home to other Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims fleeing ISIS, until the group swept across the plains and Christians abandoned their homes. ISIS lost its territory in 2017, but since then few Christians have returned.
“The security situation is not as bad as it used to be, but it is difficult for people to return,” said Father Karam. Only a third of Telskuf’s 1,450 Christian families have returned, he said. In Mosul, where Christians numbered 50,000 before 2003, only around 150 people have returned.
“Iraqi Christians have been the silent victims of the war. They felt abandoned, ”said Father Karam. “With a few exceptions, European countries have not granted them asylum, they have not been recognized as refugees. It’s one of the biggest injuries, ”he said.
The Pope will meet with Iraqi President Barham Salih and officials in Baghdad, where he is expected to voice his concerns about the discrimination and intimidation Christians face.
The Pope, who in 2019 inaugurated a new phase of interfaith dialogue between the Roman Church and Islam, will also visit Najaf to meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shiite authority in Iraq, where Muslims Shiites make up about 70% of the total. population.
Representatives of other faiths and Iraqi minority groups, including Sunni Muslims and Yazidis, are expected to attend an interfaith meeting with the Pope in Ur, southern Iraq, which is widely regarded as the birthplace of Patriarch Abraham, the father of the three monotheists. beliefs.
“The visit was hailed by all parties in Iraq as a symbol of the opening of a new page by the country,” Professor Nahro Zagros, Iraqi political analyst at Erbil, told Erbil. “But there is a complex reality on the ground and I fear this will make little difference for Christians and other minorities.”
In Mosul, Francis will find what remains of ancient churches and sacred shrines, which have been destroyed and desecrated, their objects looted or damaged.
Iraqi authorities have accelerated the removal of debris from the roads of Mosul and its old city, where Francis is expected to pray for the victims of the war in Hosh al-Bieaa, Church Square. The area was home to four churches belonging to different Christian denominations, some dating from the 12th century, none of which were spared by war.
Meanwhile, the pace of reconstruction in Mosul’s minority neighborhoods has been extremely slow.
“The government has done nothing for us, or for other Iraqis, for that matter,” said Father Karam. “People have no home to return to and without a job or the prospect of economic recovery, it is difficult for Christians to ever come back.”
Economic difficulties and insecurity
Falling oil prices combined with mismanagement, corruption and an unfavorable business environment are worsening the economic crisis in Iraq, according to the world Bank. High unemployment rates and the coronavirus pandemic put 12 million people at risk of poverty.
But it is not only the economic difficulties that make it difficult for Christians to return. The security situation is fragile and minorities no longer feel safe in Iraq.
The Nineveh Plain is under the military control of Shiite militias, while ISIS is still operational across the country. In January, ISIL carried out two suicide bombings in Baghdad, killing 32 people, the first such attack since the group lost its so-called caliphate in 2017.
Christians have regained relative calm in the Kurdish region. Thousands of people fleeing central Iraq settled there, building schools and churches. An estimated 150,000 residents live in the region, where in 2015 the Chaldean Church founded the Catholic University of Erbil, an institute open to students and refugees of all faiths.
Christianity in Iraq dates back to the first century AD, when the apostle Thomas preached the gospel in the Mesopotamian region. Iraqi Christians speak classical Syriac, an Aramaic language used for liturgies but also as a spoken language. Aramaic dates back to the 10th century BC, making it the oldest living language recorded in the world.
Several Aramaic languages, considered endangered, have survived in the Christian communities of the Near East mainly used by the older generations. The diaspora of Christian communities means that they could die out in the near future.