By Kevin Martin
On March 5, Pope Francis traveled to Iraq, the first international papal trip in over a year. Remarkably, this was the first time a Catholic pope had ever visited Iraq, which is traditionally the birthplace of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This papal pilgrimage appears to have had two primary objectives. The first, and most immediately important, was to show support for and draw the world’s attention to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. The second was to construct civil and productive dialogue between the Shiite Muslim community and the Catholic Church.
This trip was not without serious risks, however. Pope Francis, along with his Vatican entourage, were well aware of the danger. Iraq is currently experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases. Pope Francis, as an 84-year-old man, has an acute risk when it comes to this virus. But other concealed threats were also a possibility. For example, there were ample security concerns to consider. Rocket attacks on U.S. targets had taken place in recent weeks. And in January, the Islamic State claimed a double suicide bombing in Baghdad. Even in the face of these perils, Pope Francis was steadfast in his decision to visit the tumultuous country. This shows, I think, his determination to support the dwindling number of persecuted Christians within the nation.
According to the Wall Street Journal, before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the number of Christians living in the country was around 1.5 million. Today, however, that number has plummeted to about 250,000. This decline has come about due to religiously motivated murders of Christians, which drove many of the faithful to flee the country for fear of persecution. The situation worsened when the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, established its caliphate in 2014. In the following months and years, the terrorist organization rapidly expanded the territory they controlled in Iraq and Syria. While dominating these large swaths of land, ISIS perpetrated horrendous acts, such as executions of Christians, the destruction of holy sites and Churches, and many other atrocities. Though ISIS no longer holds territory, they still pose a threat. Moreover, the Iraqi government is in no way a friend of the Christian community. Christians are subjugated to the status of second-class citizens. According to a report by the University of Birmingham, there have been thousands of instances of Christians having their property seized by Iraqi officials, being prevented from practicing their religion, and arbitrarily being arrested and imprisoned. Despite guarantees of constitutional protection, there is, evidently, an acute lack of respect for the rights of Christians in Iraq. The combination of federal disinterest, local hostility, and the ravages of ISIS and other extremist militias has resulted in the devastation of an ancient people.
During his trip, Pope Francis made a deliberate effort to visit many holy sites and churches that ISIS had destroyed or where religious massacres had taken place. In his public speeches, according to the Wall Street Journal, he fervently insisted on the necessity to protect social, political and, critically, religious minority rights. He called for religious pluralism to be the great goal of the Iraqi government and people. Ultimately, Francis held Iraqi Christians up to the world as an example of a “martyr church.”
While Pope Francis’ trip was important as a symbolic gesture of support to the martyred church in Iraq, he also met with the Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the most influential leader of Iraq’s Shia Muslim community. The meeting set the tone for the continuation of dialogue between the two faiths. The result was a statement by Al-Sistani which stated that Christians ought to “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.” Al-Sistani also noted that it was the duty of religious leaders to protect these religious minorities. After the meeting, the prime minister of Iraq declared March 6 a National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence.
Iraq’s non-Christian inhabitants were just as excited as their Christian neighbors. Francis was warmly welcomed throughout the nation. Omar Mohammed is a historian from the city of Mosul, the former Iraqi capital of the Islamic State, who rose to fame for secretly documenting life there during the ISIS occupation. When Francis visited Mosul, where he prayed amidst the rubble and was greeted by cheering locals and children waving flags, Mohammed was overjoyed. He saw the visit as an opportunity for his city to break free from the painful memory of ISIS and return to a hopeful vision of the future.
“Many Muslims,” Mohammed tweeted, “have said that today is the day when we can truly celebrate the liberation of Mosul, finally today we have lowered the black flag through the eyes of the people.”
“No one ever in years was able to tell us such beautiful words like Santo Padre,” he added. Later, Mohammed posted an image of Francis on the plane ride out of Iraq. In the pope’s hands was a book with a piece of paper. The paper? A letter of thanks Mohammed wrote for the Pope.
This trip is nothing less than historical, on par with Pope Paul VI’s trip to the Holy land in 1964, which was the first time a Pope had left Italy in centuries. It displays a proactive Pope taking not only the time but also the risk to stand beside a hurting flank of his flock. This journey is a step towards a more civil and peaceful relationship between the Islamic and Christian worlds.
But the Pope’s pilgrimage is not only significant for those oppressed in Iraq or other parts of the Muslim world. In truth, it is important for any group that may be a religious minority in any country on Earth. This trip will not stop the evil persecutions that the Iraqi Christians have suffered, nor will it restore them to where they were just a decade ago. But I think it is a step in the right direction, an example of what a leader of the Catholic Church ought to be doing in these difficult times.