ROME – Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq in March, the first-ever papal trip to the country, will carry huge significance for the nation’s small and persecuted Christian minority living in an ancient culture with deep Christian roots.
Not only will Francis visit the Plain of Ur, the birthplace of the biblical figure Abraham, during his March 5-8 trip, but he will also stop in cities that hold huge significance for Christians, including Qaraqosh, once referred to as the ‘Christian capital’ of Iraq before the area was invaded by ISIS, and Erbil, where the bulk of Christian families fled when ISIS attacked the Nineveh Plain in 2014, and where many have chosen to stay after its liberation.
Yet the fact that this trip is happening during a pandemic means it could also bring additional consolation to those struggling amid fallout from the coronavirus.
Both Iraq and neighboring Iran have seen an uptick in poverty linked to COVID-19, In Iraq, it has jumped nearly 12 percent from just two years ago. It is also 22nd on the global list of countries with coronavirus outbreaks, with a total of 569,873 cases and 12,526 deaths.
Speaking to Crux, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who made a pastoral trip to Iraq in 2016, visiting refugee camps and meeting with local church officials, noted that Pope Francis in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti spoke of the joint responsibility “to create a just society that is able to include, integrate and lift up those who have fallen or are suffering.”
“In visiting a biblical land whose people have experienced unimaginable suffering in war, violence and persecution, he reaffirms the Church’s loving concern for those who are most vulnerable and marginalized – especially Iraq’s dwindling Christian and Yazidi communities – and our particular call as Christians to recognize Christ in the face of every person,” he said.
Dolan said he experienced this personally during his own visit in 2016, and voiced confidence that the papal visit “will an opportunity for the Holy Father to demonstrate his abiding love and solidarity with a Church whose many ministries have lifted the displaced, the poor and the persecuted.”
Iraq, the coronavirus and IDPs
Karam Abi Yazbeck, director of the Middle East branch for international charity organization Caritas, told Crux that he, like many, was “surprised” by the announcement of the pope’s visit, because “COVID-19 is not yet under control.”
This visit will undoubtably be “very symbolic and important for the region, not only for Iraq,” he said, but wondered aloud how the logistics would work with COVID cases still on the rise and with some parts of the region still facing lockdown.
If there is no meeting with the local Christian community, as there usually is in papal trips, it would be “a pity,” he said, “because especially the Christians in Iraq, they really need this visit and this support. This will be for them like a deep breath, a breath of oxygen for them living in this complexity.”
Yazbeck voiced hope that by March, the coronavirus will be largely under control, saying its impact is being felt in an especially acute way by the internally displaced and those still living in camps, comprised mostly of people forced to flee their homes and villages during the 2014-2017 ISIS insurgency.
“Those IDPs are still living in camps in very bad conditions. Even without COVID-19 pandemic, they are at a very low level of hygiene and with the pandemic of course it has complicated the situation,” Yazbeck said.
Referring to the “golden rules” of COVID-19, which include mask-wearing and social distancing, Yazbeck said these are nearly impossible for people still living in camps, where summer temperatures can get as high as 122-140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even though winter temperatures are lower, the desert climate makes mask-wearing difficult, and “even if they wear masks, I don’t know how hygienic it will be.”
Another problem IDPs face are the tight living quarters in the camps, where families often cram into small tents or trailers that are spaced close together, and where oftentimes the bathrooms and showers are shared with the entire community.
Those who don’t live in camps are also impacted, Yazbeck said, noting that many people have lost their jobs, particularly those who depend on daily income such as taxi drivers. “They are confined, and they are staying home, and there is no income, and they cannot secure their daily bread,” he said.
Pointing to national problems such as demonstrations, corruption, and a lack of transparency and accountability at top levels of government, Yazbeck noted that “already the country had those challenging things, and now the pandemic of course is getting worse.”
Deep Christian roots
In this context, a visit from one of the world’s most visible champions of the marginalized will undoubtably be a source of comfort for those who are struggling, but Pope Francis has been equally vocal about the need to support persecuted Christians, the so-called “new martyrs,” throughout the world, and to preserve their ancient presence in the Middle East.
He has also been a consistent advocate for dialogue, unity, and brotherhood among different nations, tribes, ethnicities, and religions, meaning he will likely also carry with him a strong message of solidarity reminiscent of his recent encyclical on human fraternity, Fratelli Tutti.
Calling the pope’s coming visit “a tremendous sign of solidarity,” Michael La Civita, communications director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), told Crux the trip will have special relevance given Iraq’s vast cultural diversity.
“The Middle East, like its carpets, are very fine and intricately woven. The populations are very diverse, there’s no monolithic sense at all regarding the culture or the fabric of society,” he said.
For the region’s minorities, then, “and particularly for Christians who right now – probably because pilgrimages and visits from the West have stopped for a number of reasons – they have a sense of feeling alone, and they’re marginalized and vulnerable to begin with.”
“That sense of being alone, of ‘aloneness,’ is really exacerbated when they are no signs of solidarity that one has become accustomed to. So to have the head of the Catholic Church, the worldwide communion of Catholic churches, coming on a pastoral visit,” will be remarkably significant, he said.
Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), told Crux that for him, the visit holds special significance in that several popes, including John Paul II and Benedict XVI, wanted to visit Iraq but were unable to.
In John Paul II’s case, a visit to the Plain of Ur was actually on the table, but negotiations with Saddam Hussein’s government broke down, and ultimately the trip didn’t happen.
“Ur is of course very interesting,” Heine-Geldern said, “because it’s the birthplace of Abraham, and Abraham is important when you see the whole theology of Francis.”
“Abraham is the father of the three monotheistic religions: Christianity, the Jewish religion, and Muslims. I think when you read the papers of Pope Francis, you will find how important this development of brotherhood among relations is for him,” Heine-Geldern said.
For Francis to visit Abraham’s homeland, then, is “very symbolic,” he said, adding that the visit as a whole will likely be a source of strength for Christians who are still there and who are being encouraged to stay, because “it would certainly be a very bad development for this region if all the Christians left.”
“Christians have a special function in the Middle East and that is recognized by a lot of people and also by a lot of the people living there, and also representatives of Islam,” he said, and pointed to numerous efforts ACN has made to assist families that want to return home, including the rebuilding of houses and church properties, as well as schools and universities.
Heine-Geldern also pointed to the organization’s efforts alongside other organizations to have international governments recognize the ISIS persecution of Christians, Yazidis and moderate Muslims as a genocide. The adoption of that term, he said, “of course triggers a lot more possibilities of help than if the resolution had not passed.”
Stephen Rasche, Vice Chancellor at the Catholic University in Erbil and Director of the Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity, told Crux that “It has been a long and hard effort to get the US Government to pay serious attention to the plight of the Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq.”
Yet despite the challenges, “that effort has seen legitimate positive change in the past several years,” said Rasche, who also serves the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil as coordinator for the return of Christian refugees.
“Certainly, one of the positive things that could come from a papal visit would be to reinforce to the international community, including the US, as to the importance of supporting and protecting these threatened and marginalized communities,” he said.
This is the second of a two-part installment on Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Iraq. Part one can be found here.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen