GP Insights # 482, 7 March 2021
On 5 March, Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad, commencing his historic three-day visit to Iraq. This is the first-ever papal visit to the region, and also the Pope’s first international visit since the pandemic began. During this visit, the Pope will meet prolific Islamic leaders and address the Christian community in the region.
On 6 March, the Pope visited the city of Nafaj, where he met the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Both the religious leaders spoke regarding the dwindling Christian community in Iraq and the threats against them. The Ayatollah affirmed that Christian citizens should be given a chance to live in peace and security just as any other Iraqi.
What is the background?
First, the Christian community in Iraq. Iraq has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, dating back to 01 AD. The country’s largest denominations include the Chaldean Catholics (67 per cent), who recognise the Pope’s authority, and the members of the Assyrian Church of the East (20 per cent). The Christian population in Iraq was nearly 1.4 million before 2003, after which the number declined drastically.
Second, the rise in intolerance towards Christians and their persecution. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the public opinion towards the West and its culture turned hostile. The Christian population were regarded as defectors siding with the US. Since then, churches were attacked, Christians could not practice their religion freely, and Islamic fundamentalists fuelled hatred towards Christians. The 2010 terrorist attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad resulted in a massive exodus of the Christian population from the country. In 2014, when Islamic State militias overran northern Iraq, tens of thousands of Christians migrated to other countries fearing persecution.
Third, the decline of Christianity in Iraq. Once religious extremist groups like Al Qaeda started taking control over territory in Iraq, the country started exhibiting a zero-tolerance policy towards religious practices. Christians were either forced to convert to Islam or to leave the country. In other cases, they were not offered either of the solutions and were killed mercilessly.
What does this mean?
First, the Pope’s visit could improve religious tolerance in Iraq and preserve the Christian community. At present, Iraq has 250,000-500,000 Christians. The Pope’s call for an end to the violence and strife ensuing in the region could also push the Iraqi government to keep a leash on terrorism and religious extremism. Second, this visit could also cement a better relationship between Iraq and Europe.