Pope Francis’s historic visit to Iraq from March 5 to 8, 2021, saw the proliferation of symbolic gestures, especially in the direction of Eastern Christians, but also towards Kurds and the Shiite Muslim community. In this Biblical land plagued by war and conflict, what provisional assessment can be drawn from the 33rd apostolic journey of the Argentine pontiff?
Prior to 2003, the year of the American invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, the numbers of Christians was estimated to be between 1.2 million and 1.5 million in Iraq. In 2021, the Oeuvre d'Orient estimates that Christians number only 300,000 to 500,000, or about 1% of the Iraqi population.
Suffice it to say that the historic arrival of a pope in the country would be a cause for hope for this small Christian minority on the verge of extinction.
The 33rd Apostolic trip of Pope Francis - and the first since the start of the Covid-19 epidemic – was not lacking in symbolism: prayers in the ruins of Mosul and in the church of Qaraqosh battered by the occupation by the Islamic State organization; a visit with a strong ecumenical accent to Ur in Chaldea, the homeland of Abraham; and a more political visit to Iraqi Kurdistan. Pope Francis also met with the head of the Shiite Muslim community, the great Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
On the side of Iraqi Christians, persecuted for many years, Pope Francis’s visit is “unforgettable” and “will have a great influence on Iraqi culture,” explains the Catholic Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, who cites the example of “this Muslim leader who was proud to kiss the Pope's hand in front of everyone.”
Is this a historic trip? Many think so, while some analysts emphasize that the visit of the Roman pontiff is far from having calmed political tensions in the country. The meeting, not originally planned, between the Pope and Massoud Barzani, a major political figure in Kurdistan, would have aroused the ire of Baghdad, according to La Croix.
Likewise, the Sunnis, who represent 20% of Iraqis, were able to consider themselves to be pushed aside. No individual meeting with a senior Sunni dignitary was on the agenda, while the Holy See negotiated, for many months, the meeting between Francis and the leader of Shiite Islam.
The Italian media Linkiesta - reputed to be center-left - even had severe words, evoking an “inappropriate” papal approach: given the context of instability, “Pope Francis’s visit may be interpreted as a provocation by the Sunni militias or the most bitter Shiites, and that regardless of the good intentions of Francis,” writes Carlo Panella.
And Linkiesta's journalist argues that the great religious tensions that plague Iraq, and, more generally the entire Middle East, cannot “be resolved from a distance with the irenism of fraternity” promoted by the current Roman pontiff. Astonishing lucidity on the part of a journalist who cannot be accused of fundamentalism.
Not to mention the fact that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who refused to sign the document on universal fraternity despite the Vatican’s proposal, is the bête noire of the mullahs of Tehran and Qom, some of whom have already tried in 2005 to have him assassinated.
The next few months will see whether a pope’s historic first trip to Mesopotamia will improve the plight of Christians in Iraq and bring some hope to a region ravaged by wa. Either way, now, more than ever, is the time to pray for Eastern Christians.