IRAQ: Christians in Iraq still fear insecurity

Three years after Pope Francis’ Apostolic Journey to Iraq, Chaldean Archbishop Michael Najeeb of Mosul and Aqra tells Vatican News that the fruits of that historic visit are slowly beginning to show, despite ongoing difficulties for Christians.

By Jean Charles Putzolu and Lisa Zengarini

Vatican News (06.03.2024) – On March 5, 2021 Pope Francis embarked on his historic Apostolic Journey to Iraq, marking the first visit of a Pontiff to the Middle Eastern nation.

During his four-day stay, the Pope visited Baghdad, as well as the Plain of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, and the cities of Najaf, Nassiriya, Erbil, Mosul, and Qaraqosh, where he met with Christian communities and political and religious leaders.

The central aim of the journey was to bring his closeness and spiritual support to the dwindling Christian communities in Iraq, still reeling from four years of persecution by the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS), and to encourage interreligious dialogue and understanding.

Iraqi Christians still victims of persecution

In a country of around 40 million people, the Christian population has been steadily declining for decades, from around 1.4 million in 2003 to about 250,000 today.

Archbishop Najeeb explained that, though Pope Francis brought them comfort and encouraged expatriated Iraqi Christians to resettle following the military defeat of ISIS in 2017, many still hesitate, and families continue to emigrate from the Nineveh Plain and Iraqi Kurdistan, due to ongoing insecurity.

He said that Christians in the region continue to endure intimidation and violence from local militias, and that most of their houses which were destroyed during the ISIS occupation are still in rubble.

“Christians don’t want to restart their life in a place that is still unsafe for them and that the government can’t control”.”

Meeting with of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani the most positive outcome of the  visit

One of the highlights of Pope Francis’ visit was his meeting with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the statement on fraternity which complemented the Abu Dhabi Document the Pope signed in February 2019 with the Sunni Grand Imam of al-Azhar., Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb.

According to Archbishop Najeeb, the event was one of the most positive outcomes of Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq and a further step towards mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims, given that Shiites represent between 60% and 65% of the Muslim population in the country.

“It was a beautiful encounter that dispelled many misunderstandings”, he said. “We are no longer seen as enemies”, but “as brothers in humanity.”

Islamist terrorism abuses religion  

Finally, asked about the attitude of Iraqi Muslim leaders towards Islamist extremists today, Archbishop Najeeb said that Muslims came soon to realize that ISIS’ views did not represent  true Islam, and opposed it. “This form of Islam advocated by ISIS has, on one hand, disfigured the friendship between Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities, and on the other hand, Islam has also been used to distort interreligious friendship,” he said.

Further reading about FORB in Iraq on HRWF website