A woman walks past a mural of Pope Francis on a wall surrounding a church in Baghdad Feb. 22. Pope Francis plans to visit Iraq March 5-8. CNS photo/Khalid al-Mousily, Reuters

Iraqi Christians continue to hope on Pope Francis' visit

  • February 27, 2021

While pundits in the West wonder whether Pope Francis really will brave out-of-control COVID-19 infections, shootings and bombings to visit Iraq, there’s not much doubt among Iraqis and others who know the Pope’s commitment to Christianity in the Middle East.

“I think Pope Francis is genuinely concerned about the emptying of Iraq and of the Middle East of its Christian presence,” University of Toronto professor of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Amir Harrak told The Catholic Register. “One would hope that his trip (March 5-8) succeeds in the midst of coronavirus and international political challenges.”

Harrak has seen the culture and civilization he studies on the run over the past two decades. Aramaic-speaking Christians have diminished from about 1.5 million to less than 200,000 since 2003. Many who remain have been internally displaced since the U.S. invasion and the rise of ISIS. They are anxious to get out and start new lives away from the violent, sectarian politics of their country.

“The Aramaic speakers face an existential threat now, during at least three millennia of presence in that land,” said Harrak. “Could he (Pope Francis) reverse the situation? I am not sure. But his trip might raise questions in the mind of the world.”

Chaldean Bishop Bawai Soro of the Mar Addai-Toronto eparchy knows Toronto Chaldeans believe the Pope will change things.

“They view it as divine intervention,” he said. “Maybe that is somewhat wishful thinking, but I agree with their sentiment.”

The visit to Iraq will be Pope Francis’ first trip outside Italy since his November 2019 trip to Japan. The trip — coming at a time of heightened restrictions to combat COVID-19 — includes a visit with Shia leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a move seen as balancing the significant diplomatic contact the Vatican and Pope Francis have developed with Sunni leadership in recent years. By visiting Ur, birthplace of Abraham and patriarch of all Christians, Jews and Muslims, Pope Francis hopes to emphasize the common ground Christians share with all branches of Islam.

But Pope Francis’ most persuasive argument will be his principled stand for the kind of open, trusting, democratic and secular politics he laid out in his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.

“Respecting the citizens according to basic human rights rather than religious affiliation — if there is any chance that this might be anything more than wishful thinking, it is the Pope who can change that,” said Soro.

The case for a different kind of politics in the Middle East will be backed by Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, who has been urging practical, secular politics based on the common good rather than sectarian loyalties for years, Soro said.

Sako is trying “to convince the public and somehow also convince the Islamic religious authorities that this is the path of the future,” Soro said. “This is the path that will eliminate corruption, eliminate discrimination and bring peace and prosperity to Iraq once again. If it comes to Iraq, it will come to the surrounding countries as well.”

Dating back to St. Pope John Paul II’s aborted trip to Iraq in 2000, the need to demonstrate the Church’s commitment to Christians in the Middle East has been on the agenda for each of the last three popes, said Catholic Near East Welfare Association-Canada executive director Carl Hétu. For Pope Benedict XVI that concern took the form of the 2010 Synod on the Middle East. In 2019 Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together in Dubai. This trip will demonstrate that concern to the world.

“You know the Iraqi Church is hurting really badly. They’ve been targeted. They’ve been martyred. The Pope knows full well that to save the remaining Christians of Iraq he needs to do this trip,” Hétu said.

Hétu sees the projects CNEWA has funded throughout the Middle East as the best argument, both for peace in the region and for a continued Christian presence. From hospitals and social services to education, Christians have historically played a vital role in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.

“Those Christians are playing an important role,” Hétu said. “Despite the nightmare of war and conflict, the trust that Christians generate is still there. … Yes, it’s true that their number has gone from 1.5 million in 2003 to less than 200,000 now, and some say even less than that. But the idea is that there is still hope, there is still time for them to continue to play that role.”

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