By Emil Anton
Pope Francis’ Apostolic Journey to Iraq, which kicks off on Friday, coincides with the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Kingdom of Iraq, first under British Administration (1921-1932), then as a sovereign state under the Hashemite King Faisal I and his successors.
Later, the monarchy was overthrown, and after a series of coups, the Republic of Iraq was taken over by the Baath party in 1968, with Saddam Hussein as president from 1979 to 2003.
During Saddam’s regime, Iraqis suffered through the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988) as well as the Gulf War (1990-1991). After Saddam’s downfall in the US-led Iraq War (2003), the country endured extremely chaotic years, culminating in the loss of large territories to ISIS (the so-called “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”) in 2014-2017.
At present, the population of 40 million is struggling to regather itself, while coping with the serious challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Christian Minority
For much of the past century, the Christians of Iraq lived in peace and harmony with their Muslim neighbors.
Iraq was a rich and prosperous country, and Christian schools, many of which were run by Western religious orders, were once widely appreciated for their high-quality education. Christians were also represented in the Iraqi parliament.
Nevertheless, the Christians of Iraq also had to face various difficulties and tragedies. Shortly after Iraq’s independence, Christians (Church of the East) suffered from massacres in Simele (Semmel) and other villages in northern Iraq, where hundreds if not thousands were ruthlessly murdered.
During the Baathist regime, private education was abolished, which deprived the Christians of their highly esteemed schools. For example, the Jesuits of the respected al-Hikma University were expelled in 1968. After the Iraq-Iran War and the Gulf War, a common response was to try to leave the country if possible.
Christians living in the north faced the dilemma of choosing between the central government and the Kurds. Whichever side they chose, they were susceptible to attacks from the other.
The Past Two Decades
During the disastrous years following the Iraq War of 2003, many Iraqi Christians, including priests and bishops, were killed or kidnapped.
Violent Islamists forced Christians to move out and close their churches. Among the martyrs was the Chaldean Catholic priest Fr. Ragheed Ganni, who on 3 June 2007, spoke his memorable last words to the gunmen threatening him: “How can I close the house of God?”
Another Chaldean priest, Bishop Saad Sirop Hanna, was kidnapped in Baghdad in 2006 and cruelly tortured during his 28-day captivity. Released after a ransom was paid, and now serving as the Apostolic Visitor to the Chaldeans of Europe, Bishop Hanna has recounted his moving story in the book Abducted in Iraq – A Priest in Baghdad.
In 2014, ISIS (also known as ISIL or IS) took control of Mosul and many of the nearby Christian villages, forcing the Christians to flee without their belongings.
Tens of thousands flocked to Erbil, the capital of autonomous Kurdistan, where churches were soon transformed into refugee centers. After the overthrow of ISIS, some Christians have been able to return to their homes, while others have not. In Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town, about half of the pre-ISIS population of 50,000 have returned.
In the past decades, the number of Christians in Iraq has declined at an alarming rate. In the 1951 census, the percentage of Christians in Iraq was as high as 6.4%, whereas today it is estimated at 0.5%.
From 1-2 million Christians in Saddam’s time, the number has fallen to as few as 200,000 (though estimates vary), and the exodus continues, due to various social and financial challenges.
Pope Francis, the President of Iraq, and the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church all agree that the presence of the age-old Christian minority is essential for the country. One of the goals of the papal visit will likely be to encourage Iraqi Christians to stay or return home, if possible.
Signs of Hope
Several international organizations and charities provide aid to the Christians of Iraq, helping them to stay and rebuild their homes and communities.
Dozens of parishes have been transformed into centers of hope, providing material and spiritual assistance, such as small loans for entrepreneurs, food packages for struggling families, therapy for the traumatized, or Bible study and catechesis for children and adults alike.
Other signs of hope include the Iraqi parliament’s recent decision to declare Christmas a national holiday for all Iraqis, as well as the Sadrist campaign to return illegally-expropriated houses and lands to their Christian owners.