After almost two decades of conflict, instability and bad government, a wave of excitement swept through Iraq last week with the long-awaited spectacle of hope and revival that was the four-day visit to the country by Pope Francis. Social media lit up with updates and images of the trip, following his every move and awed by his presence.
The pontiff toured Iraq from Baghdad to Najaf; from the plains of Ur, where Abraham is said to have been born, to the ruined city of Mosul where Daesh had its stronghold only two years ago and threatened to behead the head of the Catholic Church, before alighting in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
More than just giving hope to Iraq's dwindling Christian community, though, the visit signified the harmony between communities which have inhabited the country for thousands of years. It was a unifying occasion free of the sectarianism with which Iraq is associated. The fact that the pope's trip went smoothly and without any breach of security – which was a major concern, alongside Covid-19 – is testament to the country's improved stability.
"The visit symbolises the need for peaceful co-existence in Iraq, for all religions and ethnicities, including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Yazidis and others," the head of the US-based Iraqi Christian Foundation, Zina Kiryakos, told me. "It also shows that the region has moved beyond the violent grip that Daesh had on it less than five years ago towards a hopefully brighter, less violent future."
Despite Pope Francis having extended the hand of friendship towards the Middle East over the past few years — witness his ground-breaking visit and mass in the UAE in 2019 — the Vatican's choice of Iraq as the first place to visit during the ongoing pandemic confused many.
"This was probably due to the dwindling Christian community in Iraq," explained Kiryakos, "and the need to show solidarity with Iraqi Christians in order to help continue Christianity's 2,000-year presence in the country. Iraq is an important country for civilisation and for the Catholic Church, as 90 per cent of Iraqi Christians around the world are Catholics."
Visiting the land where one of the world's most ancient Christian communities is found has been a dream of popes over the decades. Pope John Paul II had his planned visit in 2000 cancelled due to a breakdown in talks with the government of Saddam Hussein, while Pope Benedict XVI was invited in 2008 but turned it down due to the ongoing conflict and instability. Francis is the first pope to make that dream reality.
The dwindling Christian population in Iraq — more than a million have fled since the 2003 US-led invasion — is, therefore, seen as the main reason for the visit. Despite the defeat of Daesh territorially and a general improvement in stability, the situation of the Christians in the country "continues to be difficult and one gripped with persecution," noted Kiryakos.
"There is a lack of security and a lack of job opportunities due to religious discrimination. Sectarianism continues to grip the country and many times Iraqi Christians are forced to choose sides in the sectarianism between larger groups in the country." As an Iraqi-born Chaldean Christian, she expressed her desire to see Iraq return to its mosaic of peaceful co-existence. "As in the past, where Iraqi Jews, Christians, Muslims and all Iraqis can live together in the cradle of civilisation as equal citizens under the law."
However, although the visit brought that sense of hope and meant that the streets were cleaned and sectarianism faded into the shadows for a short while at least, the systemic political and sectarian problems facing the country did not fly away with the pope. Hours after he departed, a local activist named Ali Fayyad from the city of Karbala was found dead after being kidnapped and tortured by unknown persons, thought to be from the Iran-backed Shia militias known to carry out such operations.
At the same time – and probably more dramatically according to the international community's sensitivities – the generator that provided electricity and lit up the ancient site of Ur while Pope Francis was there, was removed swiftly by the authorities after its job was done. In a nutshell, this highlighted that normal service was being resumed after the authorities had made that extra effort for the duration of his stay.
Aside from issues facing Iraq such as the economic crisis, the surge in Covid-19 cases and the threat of revived Daesh cells, the most urgent issue is that of the Iran-backed Shia militias operating under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). The militias continue to exert their influence within Iraqi politics and society, carrying out assassinations and abductions on a frequent basis while persecuting the Sunni population in particular. Rather than being a temporary presence for the stated goal of fighting against Daesh, they have made it clear that they intend to stay.
In this regard, the pope's meeting with the renowned Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in Najaf on Sunday was noteworthy. Despite footage showing what looked like a silent staring contest between the ayatollah and Pope Francis, their 45-minute meeting carried the symbolism of what was a historic encounter between such leading religious figures.
Sistani is no ordinary cleric. He was partly responsible for both the creation and break-up of the Shia militias. His fatwa in 2014 which called on Iraqis to take up arms and "defend the country, the people, and the holy sites" against Daesh led to the formation of the PMF under former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Last year, though, six years after that historic fatwa, Sistani called for the dismantling of that organisation and reiterated the need for the militias to join the Iraqi national armed forces, signalling a major shift away from Iran and its proxies in Iraq.
If the PMF had concerns that the pope would neglect it during his visit, however, then they were put to rest when he gifted his own rosary beads to Rayan Al-Kildani, an Iraqi Christian militia leader who is seen by many as an Iranian-backed figure who gives some token multicultural legitimacy to the umbrella group. His Babylon Brigade is a militia which the US sanctioned due to its human rights abuses. It was the Babylon Brigade's political wing that took two out of the five parliamentary seats reserved for Christians in Iraq's legislative elections, despite the fact that the militia largely consists of Shia Muslim Arabs from different areas.
This is not to say that Pope Francis met with a figure such as Kildani out of political malice or with the intention of spiting Sunnis and the Iraqi population, but he was possibly ill-informed about the current dynamics on the ground and had good intentions in his gift of the beads. However, that incident, along with the focus on the devastation wrought by Daesh, overlooked the fact that the Iran-backed Shia militias have played a major role in the persecution of Iraqi Christians and other minorities over the past few years. The pontiff's visit to Iraq was indeed a sign of hope and interfaith respect, especially for Iraqi Christians, but we would do well to understand that it did not solve the myriad of problems that Iraq and its Christian community continue to face.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.