Pope Francis announced earlier this month that he plans to visit Iraq in March 2021. He will become the first pontiff to visit the Arab country, and his trip will mark the first international trip by this pope since the start of the pandemic. This news comes at a significant time for Christians around the world as they prepare to celebrate Christmas. Within Iraq, however, Francis’ trip will be bittersweet, given the oppression which Christians there have faced.
The Christian community of Iraq is one of the oldest continuous Christian populations in the world. All three major Abrahamic religions trace back to the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, located in the south of Iraq, which Iraqi President Barham Salih recently referred to as the “cradle of civilization,” and which the pope will visit along with Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul, and Qaraqosh.
Iraqi Christians numbered approximately 1.2 million at the start of the millennium, but the 2003 US-led invasion and rise of the Islamic State a decade later decimated the population. Many fled the country for the United States or Europe, and today the number of remaining Christians is less than 250,000 — barely 1 percent of the national population. Just last year, Bashar Warda, the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, stated that Christianity in Iraq is “perilously close to extinction. Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom.”
Such persecution does not take place at the hands of the Shi’ite majority government or official security forces, however, but rather by Iranian-backed militias, Turkish military forces, and militant “Islamic extremist movements and non-Christian leaders.” While the caliphate has been defeated, threats remain from militiamen returning to their homes throughout the country. In response, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has worked to protect the Christian community. Kadhimi has met with local Christian representatives in Mosul and the Nineveh plains (the one remaining region of Iraq where Christians form a plurality), appealed for the safe return of Christians who have fled the country, limited the influence of militias posing the greatest threats, and defended the basic human right of religious freedom enshrined within the Iraqi constitution.
The papal visit, therefore, presents a glimmer of hope for Christians throughout Iraq, and as Barham put it, “a message of peace to Iraqis of all religions.” While some may view the pontifical trip skeptically, there is hope that it may have far-reaching consequences, extending beyond the Middle East. The pope has an opportunity to publicly defend and highlight endangered Christians around the world, and visiting Iraq should be the first — and not the only — step in standing up for those facing religious persecution.