Did the pope’s Iraq visit make a difference?

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On 20 March 2003, the United States military led an invasion of Iraq to achieve regime change and end the alleged weapons of mass destruction program of President Saddam Hussein. Regime change was achieved, but no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. Some legacies of the invasion have been war, terrorism, extreme violence, massive economic and infrastructure destruction and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced internally or fleeing overseas for protection.

Pope Francis meets Abdullah Kurdi at the end of a mass at Erbil's Franso Hariri Stadium (Vatican Media/Getty Images)

Iraqi people have lived with war and terrorism for several decades. Iraqis complain to me about their politicians, saying things like: ‘they are corrupt’, ‘they are controlled by Iran’, ‘they are too close to the West. One Iraqi told me, ‘the Iraqi government is not working for the future of Iraqis, there is no plan for the future. They are just interested in what they can do in the moment.’ Partly this is due to the high security risks, and also due to corruption.

I was interested in the Iraqi reactions to the visit to Iraq by Pope Francis in early March and whether the visit had positive consequences for Iraqis. Pope Francis is the first Pope to ever visit Iraq. A planned visit by Pope John Paul II in 1999 was not permitted by Saddam Hussain. Although Pope Francis only spent three days in Iraq, his visit received much attention and support from the Iraqi Government and was of major interest to Iraqis both in Iraq and here in Australia. I spoke with several Iraqis in Australia in order to hear their thoughts on this historic visit.

An older Iraqi man I know, Youhanna, retired in Australia but followed the news of the pope’s visit closely. ‘This was a good trip by the pope,’ he says. ‘He brings hope to the Christians in Iraq, and to everyone in Iraq who wants peace’. We spoke about the papal visit and Iraqi politics, and the sadly diminishing Christian communities in Iraq. Another younger Iraqi Christian told me he fully expected the visit to be cancelled for security reasons. He said the pope’s decision to visit Iraq was ‘brave’.

Christianity has been in Iraq since the first or second century AD. Around the time of the US-led invasion in 2003, there were an estimated 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Now that number is closer to 300,000-400,000.

Iraqi Christians are made up of a number of different Christian groups. The Chaldeans are in communion with Rome, and their Mass is celebrated in their ancient language, which is similar to Aramaic. Aramaic was the lingua franca of Palestine in the time of Jesus and the Apostles. It is still spoken in parts of Syria, and in a slightly more modern version by different communities in Iraq and Syria.

 

'The places the pope went were significant for Iraqis, and for the pope, whose theme was peace and working together with people of all faiths.'

 

One group of Christians who used Aramaic, now known as Syriacs, were divided into two groups following the council of Ephesus in 431. One group became known as Nestorians, and they managed to maintain strong links with the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad, especially from around the 8th to 12th centuries. People from this community still live in Iraq. Other Christian groups are from the Armenian and Assyrian communities, and there are also some small numbers of protestant groups.

The pope was welcomed to Iraq by President Barham Salih, a Kurd, and Prime Minister al-Kadhimi, a Shia Arab. Posters and flags were seen on the streets of Baghdad, as well as the Vatican flag.

The places the pope went were significant for Iraqis, and for the pope, whose theme was peace and working together with people of all faiths.

The pope met with the leading Shia Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in his home of Najaf. Najaf is a major centre of Shia Islam in Iraq and is the site of the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Tālib, the son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Mohammad. Ali commands great respect amongst the Shia.

An Iraqi shared news reports about the visit. Apparently, during the meeting with Ayatollah Al Sistani, the Ayatollah stood up to greet the pope and shook his hand. The Ayatollah usually remains seated for visitors. In his speech, the pope said:

‘Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion. We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings.’

Pope Francis went to the archaeological site of Ur and spoke of Abraham as a patriarch for Christians, Muslims and Jewish people. Significantly, the pope also referred to other persecuted minorities such as the Yazidi, who were massacred by Daesh (ISIS), and the Yazidi women who were kidnapped and sold as sex slaves. Pope Francis also referred to the Sabean Mandeans, a pre-Christian gnostic group, many of whom fled persecution from religious extremists. Iraqis saw this as significant, as the pope’s visit was not just for Christians, but also other minorities as well. The visit to Ur and Ali al-Sistani involved liaison between the Catholic Bishop of Basra and the Shia community leaders.

My Iraqi friends told me about the Mass in the Baghdad Cathedral of Sayidat al Najat, Our Lady of Salvation, (sometimes translated as Our Lady of Perpetual Help). On 31 October 2010, a group of armed extremists attacked the Cathedral and killed 47 Mass-goers, including two priests, and between 7 and 12 police guarding the church. The attacking group later became known as Daesh. The pope paid respect to these people who the Iraqis call martyrs. A process for beatification of these ‘martyrs’ is already in process. An Iraqi told me whilst there are many Christians seen as ‘saint-like’ in Iraq, none have been formally recognised as saints by the Vatican. Recognition of the first Iraqi saints would doubtless be very significant for Iraqis.

Then the pope headed north to the Kurdish area and went to meet with the large Christian population in Ankawa, near Irbil, in the Kurdish region. The Chaldean seminary that used to be in Baghdad is now in the safer area of Irbil. The Church has also setup a University, and hospitals in Irbil. The Chaldean Patriarch lives here.

Interestingly, the pope met with the father of Alan Kurdi (pictured), the young Kurdish boy who died trying to flee Daesh. The photo of his drowned body on the beach in Turkey spread quickly around the world. Alan drowned with his mother and brother, trying to flee the Daesh advance on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. Locally, the Kurds defeated Daesh at heavy cost to themselves, and to the destruction of Kobani.

When Mosul fell to Daesh in June 2014, many Christians fled to the Kurdish area for protection, and many have remained there. Daesh blew up churches, and monasteries, as well as the historic sites of the tomb of the Jewish prophets Jonah and a tomb of Daniel. Both sites were of importance to Muslims and Christians.

The pope then travelled to the ruined city of Mosul. Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq, and the battle to oust Daesh was described as like the battle of Stalingrad in its intensity and ferocity. ‘The pope’s visit to Mosul was a great step,’ one Iraqi told me. The pope travelled in an open top car in Mosul, an image that impressed Iraqis, who are more used to seeing their political leaders speeding along the streets in covered bulletproof cars with dark tinted windows.

As Daesh stormed across northern Iraq, they forced Christians to convert or leave. Many Christians left, and Daesh painted the Arabic letter ‘nun’ on Christian homes. This was a reference to Nassriyan, the Arabic word for ‘Christian’ commonly used by Muslims meaning ‘from Nazareth’. The Arabic letter was adopted in social media as a way of supporting these communities in the west.

However, Iraqis tell me that the preferred Arabic word for Christian is Masihyeen, or Messiahans, meaning followers of the Messiah. For Christians, the term Nassriyan has negative connotations in Iraq. Amongst themselves, the Chaldeans refer to each other as Soraye, a Chaldean word meaning Christian. Language use and connation can be very important especially for minority groups.

In his speeches, the pope spoke of the need for peace and unity in Iraq, specifically referring to a number of different ethnic minorities. One Iraqi told me that he could find no report of meetings with Sunni leaders. Many Sunnis felt marginalised and discriminated against by the Shia-led government, especially in the period of Al Maliki, the former Iraqi Prime Minister.

‘Did the pope’s visit make a difference?’ I ask my Iraqi friends. ‘Yes, of course,’ they reply. ‘The visit of the Pope shows our community is not forgotten; it gives the Christians some hope.’ Especially for Christians, and his promotion of peace and religious toleration.

‘The pope is a man of peace,’ one Iraqi told me, ‘and he was welcomed by all Christians and also by Muslims.’ Another Iraqi friend told me that the Iraqi Prime Minister declared 6 March — the day of the pope’s meeting with Ayatollah Al Sistani — as a national day of ‘tolerance and coexistence’ (yaum a tasamyh wal ta’aysh) in Iraq. Although the man I spoke to was a little sceptical about the effectiveness of this. Another Iraqi lamented the fact that within days of the pope’s visit, there were reports of attacks by extremist groups, possibly remnants of Daesh.

Clearly, there were significant risks for such a momentous visit, though without any obvious mishaps. But given the violence that has overwhelmed much of Iraq for decades, the visit emphasising peaceful coexistence was very important not just for the Christian community in Iraq, but for Iraqis in general. Especially since good news stories coming from Iraq are few.

 

 

Kerry MurphyKerry Murphy is an immigration and refugee lawyer and part-time lecturer on immigration and refugee law at ACU.

Main image: Pope Francis meets Abdullah Kurdi at the end of a mass at Erbil's Franso Hariri Stadium (Vatican Media/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, Iraq, Pope Francis, Catholic, Muslim

 

 

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Existing comments

The vast majority of the extant but rapidly declining Christian minority in Iraq, are, as you profusely detail, Kerry, not Latin Rite Catholics and their allegiances are unknown to most Australians . It is a tragic irony that the vicious Ba'athist regimes of Saddam Hussein and the al-Assad family respectively protected, and still protect Christians. If Bashar al-Assad falls, I fear the days of Christianity in Syria will be numbered. Iraq is still a bit shaky. Isis/Daesh is alive and hiding till a new opportunity arises. If push comes to shove and there is renewed fighting between Sunnis, Shi'ites and ethnic Kurds, I fear for the Christians. Even in Egypt, the Copts, the largest Christian group in the Middle East, who are roughly 10% of the population, are under extreme pressure. I have the greatest respect for Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. I believe he has prevented a Shi'a/Sunni bloodbath. He is genuinely a man of peace, but he is 90 and has a heart condition. When he dies it will be a dark day for all Iraqis. There are few like him in the Muslim majority countries of the Middle East. Christians in the Middle East are a political football, who the political leaders exploit very much to their own advantage.


Edward Fido | 25 March 2021  

Thank you Kerry for this treasure of information about this breathtakingly brave visit by Pope Francis. I searched in vain for something other than bland superficiality in our secular media. Of all the manifestations of Hope for peace in Iraq, and the God-inspired call for peace among the Abrahamic faiths, this must be the greatest step. We can only pray that it will gain momentum, and be more widely and faithfully reported, in the manner you have shown.


Alan Miller | 25 March 2021  

Thanks for this Kerry! I do not know whether the Australian media covered this visit but it is nice to read a positive news story, and the effects of soft power and expressions of solidarity even when they are largely symbolic in nature. He received a lot of advice not to go but it was a really good thing he did.


David | 26 March 2021  

Sorry to be pedantic, but Chaldean Catholics are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, but they are uniquely "Chaldean Catholic" and not "Roman Catholic". They have their own Chaldean liturgical rites which is not the same as the Roman/Latin rite.


AURELIUS | 26 March 2021  

thanks 'Aurelius', my typo, I will try and make a correction. take care, kerry


Kerry Murphy | 29 March 2021  

Probably not!


john frawley | 09 April 2021  

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