The historic visit by the head of the Catholic Church to Iraq was intended to promote interfaith dialogue and help in uplifting the country as it deals with an array of political, security, and economic challenges. Pope Francis's visit went ahead having been postponed last year owing to security concerns and the pandemic.
The papal visit has largely deemed a success, and a high point was the Pope's almost hour-long meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sayid Ali Al-Sistani, one of the most eminent and popular Shia clerics, in his humble home in the holy city of Najaf. The meeting between a pope and a grand ayatollah was a historic first, as was the visit to Iraq itself.
Despite being enormously influential while maintaining an apolitical profile, the Iranian-born cleric is famously elusive towards the media and only rarely makes public appearances. He is credited with issuing a fatwa in 2014 that called on Iraqis to volunteer and help the security forces to fight off the growing threat posed by Daesh.
This materialised in a powerful umbrella known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) composed of various irregular armed factions and militias which now form an integral part of Iraq's security forces; they are mostly but not exclusively Shia groups. Some of these were active between 2003 and 2011 and the most powerful among them receive support from neighbouring Iran, although some of the factions loyal to Sistani have since sought to distance themselves and withdrawn from the PMF altogether.
The Vatican stated that the Pope had praised Sistani for having "raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted" among Iraq's religious minorities, which includes the dwindling Christian population.
However, it was disappointing, but not surprising, that coverage of the Pope's visit to Iraq by the BBC's Rome correspondent Mark Lowen was both biased and misleading before being edited. In Lowen's report of the meeting between the two religious leaders, he originally said that, "Their talks were likely to focus on the interfaith dialogue and Iraq's Christian minority, long terrorised by Shia armed groups." The keywords associated with the original article can still be found by a Google search.
— Sayed M. Modarresi (@SayedModarresi) March 6, 2021
By most accounts, this is inaccurate, as the main cause of the Christian exodus from Iraq has been persecution by extremist Sunni groups, with Daesh being the most recent example. The extremists also targeted the Shia and Yazidi communities.
On Twitter, several people were quick to point out this inaccuracy, and Lowen's article was revised. He has since deleted a tweet in which he maintained that Iraq's Christians were being "persecuted by armed Shia groups".
On the day Pope met Ayatollah Sistani to show mutual respect & thank the Ayatollah & his followers for their sacrifices to defend Iraqi minorities especially the Christians.. @marklowen from BBC tries to sabotage the day with malicious false claims.. Help him correct it plz! pic.twitter.com/6mKtwgUAHO
— 🇮🇶Iraq & Middle East Updates (@IraqLiveUpdate) March 6, 2021
The updated and more "balanced" article now reads as follows: "The dwindling Christian community here has suffered violence at the hands of Sunni extremists but some also fear the presence of Shia armed groups — and the cleric [Sistani] is seen as a voice of moderation."
The irony was not lost when Lowen mentioned in the same article that, "The pontiff will visit Mosul, where he will say prayers in Church Square for the victims of the war with [Daesh], which left tens of thousands of civilians dead," considering that the PMF played a crucial role in defeating Daesh and protecting the capital Baghdad. Despite tactically encircling it along with the Kurds, the PMF was notably and deliberately excluded from the main liberation of Mosul city in an attempt to reassure the mostly Sunni inhabitants about feared sectarian reprisals, although some incidents and fears have persisted.
It is true, though, that the demography of northern Iraq has seen a noticeable shift following the announcement of Daesh's territorial defeat, with some Syriac and Orthodox Christians returning to their ancestral areas to find them now under the control of the Shia Shabak community. Although there are some underlying concerns about abuses of power and control, the demographic changes are disputed as to the extent of intentional social engineering or necessity; the Shabak also suffered at the hands of Daesh and left poor living conditions in their own villages. Although the concerns and fears by some Christian residents about some Shia groups are genuine, they paint a very different picture to that of the original BBC fake news story which suggested that they have been long-persecuted by another religious community which has also been repressed for decades. In fact, the shared plight of the Shia and Christians in parts of the wider region has led to what some have described as an Orthodox-Shia alliance.
It's seems a pity that the Rome BBC Rome correspondent didn't take a few minutes to chat with some of us in Rome!
— Christopher Clohessy (@purplepadre) March 6, 2021
Interestingly, the BBC report failed to mention that Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis discussed a range of issues and not just the plight of Iraq's Christians and co-existence. According to an official statement released by Sistani's office, the pair also discussed "the wars, acts of violence, economic blockade, displacement… especially the Palestinian people in the occupied territories." In fairness, this was also omitted from other mainstream news outlets.
The BBC may be better than a lot of Western-centric news media outlets, particularly in the US, but it is still not as independent or impartial as many would like to believe. Its original coverage of this positive and unprecedented meeting between two major religious leaders of different faiths was, unfortunately, marred by lazy journalism at best or a malicious attempt to mislead the general public at worst. As one Rome-based Catholic priest and lecturer on Shia Islam, Christopher Clohessy, commented on Lowen's reporting, "It seems a pity that the BBC Rome correspondent didn't take a few minutes to chat with some of us in Rome."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.