This is the first of a two-part installment on Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Iraq. Part two will be published Friday, Dec. 11.
ROME – When Pope Francis visits Iraq in March, there will undoubtably be several elements at play, not the least of which is the intense wave of persecution Christians in the area have endured for the past several decades.
Yet in addition to the religious and confessional nuances at play, he will also be stepping into a country with dire economic problems compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, and into a region plagued by ongoing tensions constantly threatening threaten to escalate.
Speaking to Crux, Michael La Civita, communications director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), said Iraq is currently in the midst of “a major economic problem,” which is the result of a variety of factors, including the fact that “its infrastructure was destroyed.”
Iraq, La Civita said, “was a reasonably wealthy country until 1991, with a large and bustling middle class, many of whom were Christians. There were 1.3 million Christians at the time, basically the backbone of middle-class society and higher. They were technocrats and bureaucrats as well as shopkeepers etc.
“Now that’s all destroyed, and with depressed oil prices because the markets have plunged, the economy isn’t what it was.”
Add long-term systematic corruption and ongoing regional tensions to the mix, and Iraq has found itself in hot water.
As much as the pope will undoubtably draw on his spiritual authority as the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to support the country’s battered Christian population, he will also likely draw on his political heft to send a message of peace to regional leaders in a bid to calm tensions many fear could spark a new war in the Middle East.
Geopolitics and regional tension
Once a bustling business hub on the path to becoming a major player in the Middle East, Iraq in recent years has plummeted so far down a hole that many wonder if the country will ever be able to climb back out.
The long-term effects of war, the ISIS insurgency, economic sanctions, and broader regional tensions have all taken their toll.
Karam Abi Yazbeck, Director of the Middle Eastern branch of international Catholic charity organization Caritas, told Crux that the problem is that once Saddam Hussein’s regime ended with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which sparked the eight-year Iraq War, the administration that came after “was not ready and was not a good alternative.”
While there have been improvements since the war ended, the resolutions, rules, and regulations established after still need to be applied, he said, adding a new government is needed.
Another contributing factor to Iraq’s woes, Yazbeck said, is the rivalry between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, who receive backing from opposing Middle Eastern superpowers; namely, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“Everything is politicized, but also for the confessions,” Yazbeck said, adding the complex intertwinement between the economy, politics, and geopolitical tensions in the region will take time to sort out.
In Yazbeck’s view, these tensions, and not local ethnic or confessional disputes, are what is destabilizing the region.
Apart from the extremists, the Iraqi people in general, Christian and Muslim, “have a lot of respect for the pope, because they see in him a symbol of peace. So, the instability is more linked to a higher level, which is linked to big political players,” he said, pointing to Israel, Saudi Arabia, the US, and Iran.
The United States and Iran have been a particular concern for Iraqis. The two have traditionally had a tenuous relationship, but it worsened in 2018 when U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the United Nations-sponsored nuclear deal with Iran subsequently issued sanctions.
Things escalated in January when Trump ordered a drone strike that killed prominent Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Iran responded by launching a series of missile attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq, aggravating concerns about another war.
The assassination of Soleimani, widely seen as the architect of Iran’s proxy wars in the Middle East, sparked fear in many that sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in Iraq would be deepened.
Earlier this year the U.S. backed demonstrations in Baghdad protesting Iran’s influence in Iraq, leading some Iraqis to accus Iran of worsening their country’s political troubles by meddling in its efforts to form a government.
“So, the tension is getting higher and higher in our region,” he said, adding that many are holding their breath and hoping there will be a sense of calm after U.S. president-elect Joe Biden takes the reigns in January.
He said he believes that Pope Francis’s visit will, even if indirectly, have big political significance in Iraq.
Noting that Muslim TV stations are already advertising the trip as one that “will have a very political impact on the region” and which the government is welcoming, Yazbeck said he believes this is an indicator that the visit “will have a very big impact on peace for the region.”
Yet apart from these regional tensions, La Civita said the Holy See has its own agenda in cultures like Iraq that are complex and multi-confessional as well as multiethnic which are free of political or private interests.
Calling Francis’s visit a “historical continuation” of the wishes and approach of his predecessors, La Civita said the Holy See “has been very consistent – I would say, at times even radical – in its very clear approach in dealings with all nations in that region.”
“While the U.S., or Canada or Israel, or France, the Western players, can form the alliances they want and serve their own partisan political agenda, the Holy See doesn’t follow that course,” he said.
Instead, it tries to maintain cordial relations with all parties, and has “worked hard to develop relationships with some of the other states in the Gulf (and) to ensure not just religious liberty…but religious freedom and advocacy.”
“In some cases, more than fifty percent of those countries’ populations have large numbers of Christians who live there and contribute to the development of their societies,” La Civita said, noting that as a shepherd, Pope Francis “been very, very clear” about where he stands on engagement of these countries.
How the visit will be interpreted is unknown, but “I’m not sure Francis, or John Paul II, ever really cared about what the American government thought of its Middle Eastern politics,” he said.
As the Bishop of Rome, the pope “is going to speak to everyone and advocate those principles for which it stands, especially justice, and that we must work to achieve justice if we want peace.”
“It’s open for interpretation and misinterpretation, but I think sometimes those who interpret things in a political partisan way are doing so … basically through a lens that reflects their own partisan agenda, not necessarily a more inclusive understanding of the world as the Holy See sees it, or as the Shepherd of Rome sees it,” La Civita said.
According to Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, Iraq ranks an abysmal 162nd in the world for transparency, finishing ahead of a handful of nations including Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela.
Although they have improved in recent years, rising from 169th in 2018, a 2019 Chatham House opinion poll found that 82 per cent of Iraqis harbor either moderate or serious concerns about corruption at the top tiers of the government, with 83 percent saying they believed corruption was getting worse.
Mass demonstrations in Iraq have taken place in 2011, 2015 and 2018, with protestors taking to the streets to demand that the political system they believed allowed corruption to thrive be radically overhauled.
In 2018 in the southeastern city of Basra, these protests took a violent turn when demonstrators clashed with local militias. Two protestors were killed, and a crowd in Sadr City stormed the headquarters of the Iranian-backed Badr Organization.
All this is ultimately why many organizations and some governments, such as Hungary, have chosen to circumvent the Iraqi central government in their efforts to rebuild the towns demolished by ISIS in northern Iraq, and deal directly with the villages instead.
Yazbeck said the problems leading to the poverty and desperation in Iraq are multifaceted, and for the most part linked to corruption, poor political decisions, and economic sanctions.
Speaking of the sanctions and their impact on the Iraqi economy, Yazbeck argued that instead of putting pressure on the government, they are instead hurting the population.
He noted that Pope Francis himself has repeatedly called for debt-forgiveness for poor countries amid the coronavirus pandemic, and several aid organizations including Caritas have advocated for an end to economic sanctions.
Yazbeck said he believes it will be easier to rebuild Iraq at the economic level than the political level, “because Iraq is a rich country, they have fuel, they have resources, but unfortunately, it’s not well managed.”
“With corruption, this leads to a lot of problems in the community,” he said.
Reflecting on whether the pope – who frequently condemns corruption and warns of how easy it is to become corrupt – will address this issue while in Iraq, La Civita said it depends on the tone Francis wants to set, but his positions on the matter are well-known.
Corruption, he said, is not just a problem in Iraq, but “it’s a problem throughout the Middle East.”
Pointing to the Palestinian Territories and countries such as Lebanon and Syria, La Civita said it impedes the development and advancement of societies, lining the pockets of the few while damaging the common good.
Should the pope choose to speak out about it, how this message is received will depend on the perspective of those who hear it, he said, insisting that even if there is no change of heart, “the more voices are public, the more that people do talk about corruption as being a huge issue and one that’s an embarrassment [is good].”
People must also understand that “there are consequences for that corruption,” he said, noting that some diaspora communities no longer want to invest in their home countries, which is a problem for economies that rely heavily on foreign remittances from these diaspora populations.
If people realize that these funds, which are so crucial to developing societies, are no longer coming in, it could be an incentive to clean house.
“I hate to be brutally frank, but we all know that words mean nothing for some people whose only reality is how much money do I have,” he said, adding that whatever the circumstances, “political corruption is a problem, and the louder the voices are,” the better.
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