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Iraq: Christians await better future following Pope Francis visit

Iraqis express hopes that the Pope's successful visit would send a message that their country is safe for religious and cultural tourism

Iraq bid farewell to Pope Francis on Monday after a historic three-day trip where he preached dialogue and a more inclusive approach to the country’s marginalised minority faiths and ethnicities. 

In the first papal visit to the conflict-torn Middle Eastern country, Francis spoke out against corruption, decried war, violence and sectarianism, and condemned more universal issues such as capitalism and consumerism. 

'I’m extremely optimistic that, God willing, something beautiful will now happen for the lives of Christians in particular and for Iraq in general,' 

- Sinan Wadeea Eskander, Iraqi Christian woman 

But his principal focus has been on inter-religious dialogue, which the 84-year-old pontiff has made one of his priorities since taking office eight years ago. 

“The religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated,” he said in his address at the Presidential Palace in Baghdad on Friday. “Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious cooperation in the life of society.”

His visit made concrete inroads towards this, with an unprecedented meeting with the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shia authority, whose words have great impact upon Iraq’s majority Shia population. 

Francis told reporters on the plane on Monday that even though he recognised the fact that some conservative Catholics would view his meeting with Sistani as "one step from heresy", it was necessary for the sake of inter-religious relations. 

The meeting was followed by an inter-religious prayer beside the ancient Mesopotamian site of Ur. The ceremony was opened by a sung recitation of Surah Ibraham (Chapter of Abraham) from the Quran, chosen because it is said to be the historic birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews. 

As well as the Pope’s speech and the interfaith prayer, testimonies were made by local residents, including two young men - one Christian and one Muslim - who were childhood friends and later opened a clothing shop together to help fund their studies. 

Rafah Baher, from the Mandaean minority, who follow an ancient monotheistic religion rooted in Iraq which reveres Adam and John the Baptist as its main prophets, spoke passionately about her experiences in Iraq, in free-form poetry.

“I witnessed my children, brothers and relatives fleeing away…we too got our passports ready, but our neighbours’ kindness was generous - we love them, and they love us,” she said. 

“Together we subsist through the war’s ruins on the same soil. Our blood was mixed, together we tasted the bitterness of the embargo … injustice afflicted all Iraqis … many countries, without conscience, classified our passports as valueless, watching our wounds with indifference. Your Holiness’ visit to Iraq means that Mesopotamia is still respected and valued.”

She ended her testimony by saying: “I would like you to hear it in the language of John the Baptist [eastern Aramaic]: enyan bahdady ahe. We are forever indebted to Your Holiness.”  

'Tremendous happiness' for Iraq’s Christians

For Iraq’s Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, Pope Francis’ visit has had the most tremendous significance and, as one senior Iraqi churchman said to a visiting European priest: “We have been waiting for him for the past 2,000 years.”

It is estimated around 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq in 2003, when the US invasion and occupation sparked a  sectarian conflict, and later, IS’s traumatic occupation of much of the country’s north and west reduced that number to around 150,000-400,000

Sinan Wadeea Eskander, 38, who had spoken to Middle East Eye before the pope arrived, managed to get on one of the buses for Baghdad’s Christian community that drove to the airport to form a welcoming committee for Francis. 

“We were 1,000 people, all Christians. The government provided the buses and each person had his own special badge and Iraqi ID card,” she told MEE. 

Praising the whole visit, especially its motto "You are all brothers", and Pope Francis’ speeches about peaceful coexistence between Iraqi faiths and denominations, Eskander said she could barely even describe her happiness.

“I’m extremely optimistic that, God willing, something beautiful will now happen for the lives of Christians in particular and for Iraq in general,” she said. 

However, some aspects of the visit, including the large presence of Iraqi officials at all events, including the masses Pope Francis celebrated, left other Christians feeling frustrated. 

“He will celebrate Mass, the whole service, and us Christians, who want and need these prayers and blessings, cannot even stand on the street outside either of the two churches he will visit,” complained Mariam, 19, who was close to tears.

“It’s not right that all the politicians and people in positions of authority will be inside the churches with him. We are his people and we want him to be seen by, and to see, his people.” 

Mariam told MEE it would be sufficient if just one family member could have attended one of the church services but said, despite all their efforts, this had not been possible.   

Her brother Isaac, 20, who had choreographed a special dance for the occasion of the pope’s visit, shrugged his shoulders and said: “Well, maybe one day I will visit Rome, and there I can see him in person.”


A message that Iraq is safe
Beyond Iraq’s Christian community, Pope Francis’ visit was also very well-received, inspiring optimism that a successful visit of the pontiff could go some way towards shifting the global perception of Iraq as being a place of perpetual war and tragedy, which is frequently listed as being among the most dangerous countries in the world, along with Afghanistan and Syria. 

An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed out that many other countries were far more dangerous than Iraq but did not have the same stigma or travel restrictions. If you actually looked at the statistics, he said, other countries, especially several in South America, were far more dangerous than Iraq.

Pope Francis’s visit, the official hoped, would show the world that actually Iraq was not as dangerous as people thought and might, with its many sites of international interest, start to attract international visitors again.

These include pilgrims, many of whom before 2003 used to visit Iraqi sites, including Ur and the tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul, which was destroyed by the Islamic State group. 

Professor Zughair Thajeel, from the Thi Qar University in Nasiriyah, in a speech at the Ur ceremony, described how, for 15 years, he had encouraged people to make pilgrimage to Ur, working first with the local Christian community in the southern city of Basra and, later, with other Iraqi Christians.

'This visit is great recognition from the Vatican that Ur is the birthplace of Abraham'

- Ali al-Makhzomy, director of tour operator Bil Weekend

“The turning point was when we met [Patriarch of Babylon and the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church Cardinal Raphael] Sako, who advised his auxiliaries and priests to accompany organised pilgrimages to Ur…[contributing] to the arrival of successive groups of pilgrims who celebrated the Mass and prayed in this historical city,” he said. 

He pointed to religious harmony when mentioning that a delegation from the Vatican undertook one such pilgrimage in 2013, and were excited that their visit coincided with the Shia Arbaeen pilgrimage to Karbala to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein. He said this could “send a great message to the world that we are one nation”. 

Locally, Thajeel is known as Ali al-Kildani (the Chaldean) because of all his work advocating for Iraqi Christians.  

But Iraq does not only have the potential to attract pilgrims back to its soil, but also cultural tourists, as the country offers not only a wide-ranging terrain, from its desert south to its mountainous north, it also boasts thousands of archaeological sites which, for decades before 2003, attracted archaeologists, scholars and more general tourists. 

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However, on the back of the papal visit, Christian tourists are expected to be among the first, and some Iraqi tour companies are already making plans to offer customised packages.

“The historic papal visit has made Iraqis from different beliefs very happy, especially Iraqi Christians. And this visit is great recognition from the Vatican that Ur is the birthplace of Abraham,” said Ali al-Makhzomy, co-founder and director of the Baghdad-based tour operator Bil Weekend, adding that he believed the pope’s visit would inspire Christians from around the globe to make similar journeys.

“I am designing two itineraries which will be available from this winter,"  Makhzomy told MEE.

The first is linking Iraq with the Abraham Path, following the Prophet Abraham’s ancient journey, that pilgrims can take from Ur to the Holy Land, via Turkey and Syria, he said.

"And the second will be retracing Pope Francis’ own steps, taking in Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Mosul and Erbil, along with other places mentioned in the holy books, such as Babylon, the Garden of Eden, and the tombs of [the Prophets] Ezekiel and Nahum,” he added.

“I expect that this will boost tourism in Iraq gradually and will help develop this sector in the country.”

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