Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq in early March might not bring much practical improvement to the realities the vulnerable Christian minority faces in the country for now, but the visit spiritually and psychologically reassured the local Christian community that they have support from the Vatican.

Currently, Iraq – the second largest oil producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) after Saudi Arabia – suffers from severe political, economic, and security challenges. Indeed, the Iraqi parliament only recently passed a controversial national budget legislation following months of hard discussions and political rivalries among the different Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish parliamentary blocs.

When the Islamic State militants invaded a third of Iraq’s territories in 2014, including Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city and a historic cradle of Christianity, they persecuted the Christians – and even the Muslims – and committed a genocide against the Yazidi minority.

Prior to the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq, there were 1.5 million Christians in the country, but around 80 percent of them have since fled to countries abroad, according to Christian clerics, CNN reported.

Prior to the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq, there were 1.5 million Christians in the country, but around 80 percent of them have since fled to countries abroad.

Iraqi Christian families have been living in dread and anxiety even after the liberation of Mosul, and while some families have returned to their homes in the Nineveh Plains, more than half of the Christian population has left Iraq due to poor security and economic conditions, threats from different militias, and demographic changes.

The message behind the Pope’s visit was that in the future, the Vatican will help Christians with the problems they are facing in Iraq, and the northern Kurdistan region; but as for now, it was mostly implied that the Christian community should stay in Iraq and live their lives without fear.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was also encouraged to do more in support of local Christians, though some would argue they have already done a lot for the Christian community given they have a Christian minister in the government and several Christian lawmakers in the parliament.

Moreover, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi was urged to help the Christian community and other minorities rebuild their houses and churches, and to allow them to have a greater political representation in the Iraqi government, parliament, and the judiciary.

Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq captured the attention of international and local media and politicians, garnering highly optimistic coverage at a time when Iraqi Christians are considered marginalized and as the nation is facing a surge in coronavirus cases and high unemployment rates – especially among the youth.

Hence, despite the promising symbolism of the moment, Pope Francis’ trip is not expected to have many practical effects – at least in the short-term – for alleviating the plight of Iraqi Christians who are facing constant threats of forced displacement by powerful militias, in a nation riddled with socioeconomic ills.

Pope Francis’ trip is not expected to have many practical effects – at least in the short-term – for alleviating the plight of Iraqi Christians who are facing constant threats.

Those deep-rooted issues are larger than the capabilities of Prime Minister Kadhimi’s cabinet, as well as the KRG. Both sides are at odds over the oil budget and accordingly, the Pope’s message of “hope to be more powerful than hatred and peace more powerful than war,” might not be as easily received in a country that has become divided by multiple wars, extremism, sectarianism, rampant corruption, and interference by neighboring countries and world superpowers. Indeed, Iraq urgently needs viable solutions, along with the power of “hope.”

Nevertheless, the Pontiff’s visit to Iraq, including Nineveh Plains and the Kurdistan region, was still a reassurance for the Iraqi Christians that they have support from the Vatican and that the Pope is aware of their miseries. “You are not alone! The entire Church is close to you, with prayers and concrete charity. And in this region, so many people opened their doors to you in time of need,” the Pope said during his visit to Qaraqosh, the center of Hamdaniya and the largest Christian town in Iraq.

Many in Iraq view the Vatican as being connected to Western governments – Washington, the UK, and across Europe – therefore bringing further assurance to Iraqi Christians that they will have ongoing and widespread assistance for their plight.

Finally, the Pope’s meeting in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani – Iraq’s top Shia cleric who is a deeply revered figure in Shiite-majority Iraq –delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence, for all Iraqi religious groups to embrace the country’s Christian minority.

Political Implications

On the other hand, Iran – which has hegemony over the Shiite parties in Iraq – was not happy with the Pope’s visit nor its outcomes. Tehran is concerned the visit could diminish its influence over Iraq, reinforcing the positions of Najaf Shiite Marjaeya and Prime Minister Kadhimi who has vowed to rein in the militias that take direct orders from Tehran since taking office.

Prior to the historic visit, pro-Iran Shiite militias had been increasingly targeting the US-led global coalition forces in Iraq.

Prior to the historic visit, pro-Iran Shiite militias had been increasingly targeting the US-led global coalition forces in Iraq. The pro-Iran militias were also blamed for the February 15 rocket attacks at Erbil international airport, where the coalition forces operate from, killing one civilian worker and wounding one service member and five other contractors.

The attacks were interpreted as an Iranian attempt to make US President Joe Biden ease economic sanctions and accept an unconditional return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement of 2015 – which former President Trump withdrew the US from in 2018 – and also, to make the Pope adjourn his visit to Iraq in light of security concerns.

Still, Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq was undoubtedly a landmark which, in the long run, may bring about peaceful coexistence among the country’s different ethnic communities and religious groups, namely the Christians who hope the visit will help reduce their struggles and bring stability to the war-torn country.

But that hope will become useless if the Iraqi as well as the Kurdish authorities do not take action and fulfil the promises made during the Pope’s visit, to make Iraq a safe haven for the Christians. Moreover, they must make good on their vows to the Iraqi people in general, who are already fed up with empty promises and strongly desire to improve their quality of life.

 

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