Pope Francis embarks on historic go to to Iraq


Pope Francis begins a historic go to to Iraq on Friday, the primary by a pontiff to the birthplace of the Eastern Churches from the place greater than 1,000,000 Christians have fled over the previous 20 years.

The go to of the pope has a extremely symbolic worth given the significance of Iraqi Christians within the historical past of the religion and their cultural and linguistic legacy courting again to the time of historical Babylon, nearly 4,000 years in the past.

The systematic persecution of Iraqi Christians by the hands of al-Qaeda first after which ISIL (ISIS) in more moderen years has pushed tens of 1000’s into diaspora and is threatening the group’s survival.

Francis will meet the dwindling Christian communities of Baghdad, Mosul and Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian metropolis within the Nineveh Plains, the place, in 2014, the ISIL armed group worn out the remnants of the Christian presence that had survived al-Qaeda’s violent campaigns, inflicting tens of 1000’s to flee and discover refuge within the autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

In Erbil, the pope will meet the Kurdish authorities and among the 150,000 Christian refugees from central Iraq which have discovered shelter there.

“We hope the visit of the pope will bring some attention to the tragedy of Christians in the East and encourage them to stay,” stated Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the Iraq-born patriarch of the Chaldean Church, in a information convention on Wednesday.

“It will also bring a message of fraternity to the other Iraqi faiths – that religion should not divide but unite and that we are all Iraqis and equal citizens.”


Beginning of diaspora

Before the US-led invasion of 2003, Christians of various denominations numbered about 1.6 million in Iraq. Today, lower than 300,000 stay, in response to figures offered by the Chaldean Church. Since then 58 church buildings have been broken or destroyed and greater than 1,000 Iraqi Christians have been killed for his or her religion.

Under dictator Saddam Hussein, the Christian communities have been tolerated and didn’t face important safety threats, though they have been discriminated towards.

The diaspora began after the 2003 US-led invasion and the chaos that ensued when al-Qaeda initiated a marketing campaign of focused assassinations and kidnappings of monks and bishops, and assaults towards church buildings and Christian gatherings.

In October 2006, an orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, was beheaded and in 2008 the group kidnapped and killed Archbishop Paulos Farah Rahho in Mosul. The identical 12 months, one other priest and three worshippers have been killed inside a church.

In 2010, 48 worshippers have been killed in a Syro-Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, the place the pope will maintain a public assembly on Friday. In 2014, as ISIL occupied Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, the group destroyed greater than 30 church buildings, whereas the remaining buildings have been used as administrative centres, tribunals or prisons, lots of which have been later bombed because the US-led coalition fought ISIL.

Upon its arrival in Mosul, ISIL requested Christians to transform to Islam, pay a tax or be decapitated. Thousands fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish area and neighbouring nations.

“When ISIS arrived people had only seconds to gather their things and flee,” Father Karam Shamasha, the reverend of the St George Chaldean Church of Telskuf in Nineveh, instructed Al Jazeera.

2020 10 21T082042Z 1066063222 RC2WMJ9FPAKR RTRMADP 3 HEALTH CORONAVIRUS POPEPope Francis will spend three days in Iraq [File: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]

Initially, Christians within the Nineveh villages sheltered different Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims fleeing from ISIL, till the group swept by means of the plains and Christians deserted their houses. ISIL misplaced its territory in 2017, however since then few Christians have returned.

“The security situation is not as bad as before, but it is difficult for people to return,” stated Father Karam. Only one-third of the 1,450 Christian households of Telskuf have gone again, he stated. In Mosul the place Christians numbered 50,000 earlier than 2003, solely about 150 folks have returned.

“Iraqi Christians have been the silent victims of the war. They have felt abandoned,” stated Father Karam. “With few exceptions, European countries have not given them asylum, they have not been acknowledged as refugees. This is one of the biggest wounds,” he stated.

Interfaith dialogue

The pope will meet Iraqi President Barham Salih and officers in Baghdad, the place he’s anticipated to lift issues in regards to the discrimination and intimidation confronted by Christians.

The pope, who in 2019 inaugurated a brand new section of interfaith dialogue between the Roman Church and Islam, may even go to Najaf to fulfill Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the very best Shia authority in Iraq, the place Shia Muslims signify about 70 % of the overall inhabitants.

Representatives of different faiths and Iraq’s minority teams, together with Sunni Muslims and Yazidis, are anticipated to attend an inter-religious assembly with the pope in Ur, in southern Iraq, which is extensively thought-about the birthplace of Patriarch Abraham, the daddy of the three monotheistic faiths.

“The visit has been hailed by all parties in Iraq as a symbol of the country opening a new page,” stated Professor Nahro Zagros, an Iraqi political analyst in Erbil. “But there is a complex reality on the ground and I am afraid it will change little for Christians and other minorities.”

In Mosul, Francis will discover what stays of historical church buildings and holy shrines, which have been destroyed and desecrated, their artefacts looted or broken.

The Iraqi authorities accelerated the elimination of particles from Mosul’s roads and its Old City, the place Francis is predicted to hope for the victims of the conflict on the Hosh al-Bieaa, the Church Square. The space hosted 4 church buildings belonging to totally different Christian denominations, some courting again to the 12th century, none of which was spared by the conflict.

Meanwhile, the tempo of reconstruction in minority neighbourhoods in Mosul has been extraordinarily gradual.

“The government has done nothing for us, or for other Iraqis, for that matter,” stated Father Karam. “People don’t have a house to return to and without a job or the prospect of economic recovery, it is difficult that Christians will ever return.”

Economic hardship and insecurity

Declining oil costs mixed with mismanagement, corruption and an unfavourable enterprise setting are deepening Iraq’s financial disaster, in response to the World Bank. High unemployment charges and the coronavirus pandemic are placing 12 million folks liable to poverty.

But it’s not solely the financial hardship that makes it troublesome for Christians to return. The safety state of affairs is fragile and minorities really feel not secure in Iraq.

The Nineveh Plain is underneath the navy management of Shia militias, whereas ISIL remains to be operational throughout the nation. In January, ISIL performed two suicide assaults in Baghdad killing 32 folks, the primary such large assault for the reason that group misplaced its so-called caliphate in 2017.

Christians have discovered relative calm within the Kurdish area. Thousands fleeing central Iraq settled there, constructing faculties and church buildings. Some 150,000 are believed to be living within the area, the place, in 2015, the Chaldean Church based the Catholic University of Erbil, an institute open to college students and refugees of all faiths.

Christianity in Iraq dates again to the primary century AD when Apostle Thomas preached the gospel within the Mesopotamian area. Iraqi Christians communicate classical Syriac, an Aramaic language used for the liturgies but additionally as a spoken language. Aramaic dates again to the 10th century BC, making it the world’s oldest recorded living language.

Several Aramaic languages, thought-about endangered, have survived inside Christian communities within the Near East primarily utilized by the older generations. The diaspora of Christian communities means they may change into extinct within the near future.