On Thursday night Manar Al-Khoury, a deacon at the Church of Mar Youssef in the Baghdad upper class district of Karrada, was working hard to oversee the last preparations for an anticipated mass that Pope Francis will be holding on Saturday, the second day of the visit of the Holy See to Iraq.
On Friday, Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad in his first overseas trip since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the visit, the Holy See stated in a message on Thursday to the Iraqis, “I long to meet you, see your faces, visit your land, ancient and extraordinary cradle of civilisation.. I arrive among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat: ‘You are all brothers.’”
Upon his arrival in Baghdad, the pontiff said that his visit was “a duty towards a land that has been martyred for so many years.” In the Iraqi capital where he started his three-day tour of Iraq, Pope Francis will hold the mass that is expected to see a high turnout.
“We are really looking forward for this mass; we are rejoicing over his visit. The mass will be a jubilant moment for us,” El-Khoury said.
"Those who will attend the prayers may not be many but those who will follow it, here in Iraq and elsewhere all over the world where many Iraqi families have been residing since the big wave of immigration started in 2004, will be so much more.
“As Christians of Iraq, we have suffered so much, especially during the past two decades; we deserve a moment of joy to heal our wounds,” El-Khoury said over a telephone from Baghdad.
During the years that followed the 2003 US war on Iraq, the 1.5 million Iraqi Christian minority dwindled to less than half a million. The first big waves of migration had started a decade earlier with the economic embargo imposed on Iraq in the wake of its defeated invasion of Kuwait which wrecked what should have been one of the most prosperous world economies and forced many young men, both Muslim and Christians, to pursue a better life elsewhere.
“Under Saddam Hussein, things were alright for Christians so long as they decided to be just Christians and not to get involved in politics in any way form,” said Joseph Salio, a former Iraqi parliamentarian. He added that if one got involved in politics or expressed discontent with anything he would not have been in a good place – not because he was Christian but because he was politically active.
Since the fall of Saddam and the beginning of civil conflicts between the Shia majority that was harshly coerced by Saddam and the Sunni minority to which Iraq’s former dictator belonged, the rise of radical militant groups has given the Christians of Iraq a nightmare. Clergy were attacked, kidnapped and killed. Churches were attacked and worshippers were killed. Entire cities were evicted of its Christian population who had to run for their lives under the terrifying threats of the Islamic State (IS).
It was in the summer of 2014 that Emane Hannah had to run from her Mosul house “with the dress I was wearing and with just very few things,” along with her husband and children to escape the IS threats against Christians to either convert to Islam, die, or leave their houses.
“We left. Our houses were confiscated and we had to move from one place to the other before we finally managed to settle in Baghdad,” she said over the phone.
Today, she added, some of her good old neighoburs have tried to find their way back to the houses they once lived in. She, however, is not sure she is up to this move. “Well, I am not sure that things are permanently secure there; we don’t know; we have seen so many horrors – not just us in Mosul but all of us, the Christians of Iraq,” she said.
In the autumn of 2010, a bloody attack against the Church of Our Lady of Salvation killed close to 60 people and left so many others wounded. “This was one of the worst attacks that hit the Christians of Iraq; it was a moment of transformation that made so many people realise that they can no longer live in Iraq and that they had to go,” El-Khoury said. “It was a heartbreaking moment for all the Christians of Iraq, not just the followers of this Assyrian Catholic church,” he added.
Himself of the Chaldean Catholics, El-Khoury was closely associated with the Church of Our Lady of Salvation. “My school was affiliated to this church; I used to pray and play there until the late 1990s; I love this church and it broke my heart to see what happened there,” he said.
Chaldeans, Assyrians, and other Catholics make up over 60 percent of Iraq’s Christian minority. For all of them, the visit of the Pope is a ray of sunshine rather than an answer to any of their profound problems.
“The problems of Christians as a minority in Iraq goes way back in time because once we became a religious minority we have been treated as such,” Salio said. He added that he was not aware that the Pope was in Iraq to fix the unfairness to which the Christians of the country have been faced with, especially during the past decade.
“It is too complicated; to undo the unfairness we need to first see a stable and democratic state that is liberated from radical militant groups and all the militias and then we need to have laws that treat all Iraqis as equal citizens,” Salio argued. However, he added, the visit of the Holy See would “at the very least shed light on the suffering of the Christians of Iraq,” he added.
For her part, Hannah is hoping that the pontiff will be able to prompt Iraqi officials to try and help those Iraqis who had been forced out of their houses to have enough security and possible job opportunities to take them back to their cities and villages. “Maybe one day I will go back to Mosul – just maybe,” she said.
Pople Francis is planning to visit Mosul in the north of Iraq that has been liberated from IS – despite major security concerns. Mosul is scheduled to be his third stop in Iraq after Baghdad, where he was received with Iraqi President Burham Salih, and Najaf where he is planning to meet with Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the most senior Shia clergy.
“This meeting is very important because it sends a message of tolerance and coexistence to people of all faiths,” said Yasser Mekki, a Najaf-based Iraqi activist.
“During the tough years of assaults on the Christians of Iraq, Ayatollah Al-Sistani called for compassion with their plight,” he said. According to Mekki, some of the Christians who had to flee Mosul, found refuge in Karbala, a leading Shia city.
However, Christian rights activists in Iraq have been complaining about the attempts of some radical Shias in the north of Iraq to incite Christians to leave, not just their cities but all of Iraq.
Salio is arguing that this is a very difficult moment for the Christians of Iraq where they have to grapple with haunting security concerns, a reality of inequality, and a sense of uncertainty over the future. “We hope the Pope will raise these issues with his interlocutors in Iraq, but we don’t know what he will say and what they will do,” he said.
In addition to Baghdad, Najaf and Mosul, the pontiff is planning a visit Ur, the birthplace of Prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. “Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world,” Pope Francis said in a statement during the reception the Iraqi president accorded to him.
During the ceremony, the Holy See saluted the Christians of Iraq. He said, “The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all.” He, however, did not speak much of the fact that the numbers of Christians in Iraq have been irreversibly dwindling to the point that the attendance in some of the churches has gone down from hundreds on a given Sunday to tens.
“Those who go and start a new life are unlikely to come back; some may come back out of nostalgia, family commitments or maybe some business interest -- but not many,” El-Khoury said. However, he added, “the question today is not about getting those who left to come back to their land, but to make sure that those who are still here are not leaving so that the churches of Iraq will not become so empty one day,” he added.
The plight of the Christians of Iraq is part of a larger dilemma that is facing the Christians of the Middle East, as their numbers have been dwindling substantially in all the countries they had lived in, for better and for worse, during 20 centuries, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and even in Palestine, the birthplace of Jesus Christ.