Christians gather on April 13 at Saint Joseph's church in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq and on the Nineveh Plains, to celebrate Palm Sunday. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Planned Papal Visit to Iraq Could Boost Country’s Christians

Organizations urge pontiff to leverage upcoming trip to speak out against persecution on heels of report warning community on verge of extinction

Pope Francis’s planned visit to Iraq could provide a “boost of confidence” to encourage rebuilding the country’s dwindling Christian population, human rights groups say.

On June 10, Francis announced he hoped to visit the war-torn country next year, which would mark the first-ever papal trip there.

With Catholic and Orthodox adherents, Iraq is home to one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world. However, the number of Christians living there has dwindled from 1.5 million in 2003 to fewer than 250,000 due to sectarian violence, war and the rise of Islamic State.

Wendy Wright, president of the American-based human rights organization Christian Freedom International, traveled to Iraq with her colleagues last October to provide humanitarian assistance, and met with Iraqi and Syrian Christian refugees.

“Pope Francis could be addressing the ideology of violent political/religious Islamism that has become most evident when people feel emboldened that nobody’s going to challenge them,” Wright told The Media Line. “As the defender of the Catholic faith, this should be the priority.”

Wright mentioned Pope John Paul II, who is recognized as having helped contribute to the collapse of Communism, and stressed that Francis could leverage his trip similarly to help Iraqi Christians. The persecution of Christians in the Middle East is pervasive and has mostly been overlooked due to “wanting to respect multiculturalism,” she said.

“ISIS is not the only threat; there are also reports of Iranian-backed militias that have come into Christian villages and carried out very threatening actions, like brandishing weapons,” Wright related, explaining that her conversations with Syrian Christians in particular had revealed to her the extent of the problem.

“The [Syrian Christians] were just as adamant that they could not [return home and said]: ‘It was our neighbors who turned on us. These were people who we had grown up with and lived with side by side.’ So they just don’t feel that they can trust even their own neighbors,” she recounted.

Claire Evans, regional manager for the Middle East at International Christian Concern (ICC), affirmed that following two decades of violence, the Iraqi Christian community “is undoubtedly disappearing” and that Francis’s visit would come at a pivotal moment.

“A papal visit would be most welcomed by Iraqi Christians and serve as a significant boost of confidence for those who remain in Iraq,” Evans told The Media Line.

Following the conflicts that took place in Iraq in the early 2000s, she continued, many families were forced to relocate to the Nineveh Plains, a region located northeast of the city of Mosul, which is home to several historic Christian villages.

“This place of refuge, however, was disrupted in 2014 by the rise of Islamic State,” Evans stated. “Many Christians became internally displaced. The Vatican has expressed much desire to support the reconstruction of the Nineveh Plains.  A papal visit can be utilized to develop a strong strategy within these parameters through the help of those on the ground.”

Tribal divisions within Iraqi society, government corruption and treatment as second-class citizens are also to blame for the decline of the historic Iraqi Christian community, she added.

“Persecution is not limited to extremism; it is present in every aspect of Iraqi society,” Evans asserted.

The announcement of Francis’s visit comes on the heels of a report released last month stating that Christians are the most widely persecuted people in the world. The report, led by Anglican Bishop of Truro Philip Mounstephen, was commissioned by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

“In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia, the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage,” the report said. “Christianity is at risk of disappearing, representing a massive setback for plurality in the region.”

A Middle East advocacy officer from Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a human rights organization, told The Media Line that the pontiff should take advantage of a visit to the region to speak out about injustice.

“I think that the pope should send a clear message that Iraq should uphold principles of human rights and equality for all citizens and end corruption and sectarian politics in order to produce long-lasting peace and stability,” the officer, who asked that his name not be used, stated. “The disappearance of religious minorities in Iraq does not bode well for the future of the nation or the region, which has long been ethnically and religiously diverse.”

The officer noted that the majority of Iraqi Christians were looking to leave or had already left the region and immigrated to western countries. However, he said, the United Nations does not recognize them as refugees, and therefore they cannot benefit from U.N. aid or its resettlement program.

Despite the dire situation, the ICC’s Evans believes that ultimately, the historic community will not disappear, in part thanks to an unlikely source of newcomers.

“The brutality of ISIS toward Christians has led many Muslims to express interest in learning more about Christianity,” she asserted.

“The Muslim convert presence is growing,” she went on. “However, the persecution that they face is of a different nature that forces the Church underground. It is impossible to ascertain just how big this community is, but there is a general sense that it is growing.”

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