Pope Franics during his apostolic visit to Iraq in March 2021 Pope Franics during his apostolic visit to Iraq in March 2021  (ANSA)

20th anniversary Iraq war: 'The Church never abandoned its people'

On the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of war in Iraq, the then-apostolic nuncio to the nation recalls his time in Baghdad, where Pope St. John Paul II had sent him as a messenger of peace.

By Marie Duhamel and Linda Bordoni

Cardinal Fernando Filoni says one of the toughest periods of his life was the war in Iraq.

He was speaking to Vatican News exactly 20 years after the outbreak of the conflict in the Middle Eastern country, where he served as apostolic nuncio in the early 2000s, remaining at his post in Baghdad amid bombings and suicide attacks. 

Filoni was appointed as the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq and Jordan in January 2001, and was at the apostolic nunciature in the Iraqi capital during the US invasion which began on 20 March 2003.

Listen to the interview with Cardinal Fernando Filoni

“I remember this period as one of the most tough periods of my life.”

“This was the moment,” he said, ”in which not only myself but also the bishops, the priests, the faithful and the people in Iraq, we had the perception of our incapacity to give a different perspective than that of war”.

He recalled that Pope John Paul II spoke often of the conflict and about the possibility of solving it through dialogue.

Pope St John Paul's numerous appeals and initiatives for peace

Pope St John Paul II repeatedly called for peace. When the winds of war were making themselves felt on the horizon, he addressed the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See and said "No to war! War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity." When war seemed inevitable, he announced a day of prayer and fasting for peace in the Middle East, which was to take place on 5 March 2003 .

Just ten days later, speaking during the Angelus on 16 March, he said: “In the face of the tremendous consequences that an international military operation would have for the population of Iraq and for the balance of the Middle East region, already sorely tried, and for the extremisms that could stem from it, I say to all: There is still time to negotiate; there is still room for peace, it is never too late to come to an understanding and to continue discussions.”

He reminded the United States, England and Spain - without expressly naming them - that "the use of force represents the last recourse, after having exhausted every other peaceful solution, in keeping with the well-known principles of the UN Charter.”

But based on the assumption that Saddam Hussein had "weapons of mass destruction", the US President ordered air strikes over Baghdad, marking the beginning of a military operation "to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger." US forces toppled Hussen's regime in a matter of weeks and the search for evidence of Iraq's so-called "weapons of mass destruction intensified. The weapons were nowhere to be found.

The US military remained in Iraq for 8 years. During that time some 4,600 US soldiers and 270,000 Iraqis, mostly civilians, were killed.

Pope John Paul II's prophetic words regarding "the extremists that could stem from [the war]" proved dramatically true, and insecurity spiralled, fuelling insurgency. Historians believe that this helped spawn the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group and created a battleground where civil war could take place.

Islamic State also exploited sectarian tensions following the invasion to entrench itself in both Iraq and Syria, causing the US to send troops back to Iraq three years after first withdrawing from the country.

Twenty years later, no one knows with certainty how many people have been killed and wounded in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion. However, we know that between 275,000 and 306,000 civilians have died from direct war-related violence caused by the U.S., its allies, the Iraqi military and police, and opposition forces from the time of the invasion through October 2019. Despite more than $100 billion committed to aiding and reconstructing Iraq, many parts of the country still suffer from lack of access to clean drinking water and housing.

Accepting the inevitable

What was "really terrible," the former apostolic nuncio said about the days following the outbreak of war, was not having the opportunity to foster dialogue and promoting peace, and he remembered how they were forced “just to accept - fatally – the war.”

"We tried to live this moment witnessing the faith, and our solidarity with the people", Filoni continued, showing that it was possible to “do something” in a situation of war.

Archive image of the destruction caused by a rocket in Baghdad in 2005
Archive image of the destruction caused by a rocket in Baghdad in 2005

The Church stays, despite it all

His presence, he said, was intended as a witness that the Church would never abandon a situation where things were difficult, where war was ongoing.

An apostolic nuncio, he explained, is not just like an ambassador whose mandate is to foster bilateral relations or business interests: “We are there for solidarity, to assure peace, to defend rights, to be close to Christians, to Catholics, to dialogue [with the other parties]". 

“If this is the real reason for our presence, if there is a war, we cannot leave.”

As Church, he continued, we believe that “we must show ourselves as a part of the people there. We are inserted in the reality.”

So, he added, his team experienced the same difficulties and sorrows as the people of Iraq, of the Christians, the Catholics, the minorities: “this was, I think, a very positive aspect in the difficulty of the war.”

Iraq underwent a profound change as power changed hands, and Christians were deeply affected. During the period of Saddam Hussein, he noted, "the Church was respected."

The Cardinal explained that in Iraq at the start of the millennium, most Christians were Chaldeans, and then there were the Orthodox. He said the Latin-rite Church was very small, and there were also other minorities, all of whom were respected.

He noted that although it was a Muslim country and Christians did not enjoy religious freedom, they had freedom of religion, meaning that missionary activities were prohibited but they were free to practice their faith, and were respected in their diversity and identity.

A cemetery of Protestant Christians in Baghdad
A cemetery of Protestant Christians in Baghdad

Uncertainty and questions

The question often discussed with the bishops, Cardinal Filoni continued, was what Iraq would look like after the war. “What kind of attitude would we assume in case Saddam Hussein’s regime came to an end?”

They took it slowly, “step by step”, he said, but always defending the right of the people, the Iraqi people to be free, and the right of the Church to continue to be there for the people.

“We defended the right of the Church to be here because it's part of the life of the Iraqi people.”

When the power shifted from the minority Sunnis to the Shiites, he said, many questions were asked about being able to keep the same guarantees of freedoms. “ We had to adapt "to this uncertain moment and go step by step.”

“We suffered a lot because, after the end of the regime of Saddam Hussein, the first to be attacked by [fundamentalist] groups were Christians and Catholics,” he said.

“Churches were destroyed, and there were many martyrs.”

The Churches were suffering due to incertitude, Filoni continued, and Church representatives were unable to appeal to those in power: firstly, because the groups didn't respect any law, and  secondly, because the State and government had no capacity to defend their citizens. He noted that the government itself came under attack many times, “so it could not defend us against others.”

We had to find ways, he said, to “defend at least those who were going to Mass, so near the churches there were fences”, and security to check those who were coming in and to be sure that no one could be harmed in the churches.

“There were very difficult moments.”

Slowly, Cardinal Filoni said, things improved, “although the churches are still watched by soldiers and police, but the situation has evolved for the better “, especially after the visit of Pope Francis.”

“I think the situation of better understanding is on the way.”

Pope Francis in Mosul on 7 March 2021
Pope Francis in Mosul on 7 March 2021

Christian exodus from the country

Cardinal Filoni said Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq from 5 to 8 March 2021 was much more than a simple visit: “It was a pilgrimage to Iraq, not to for the holy sites of Abraham and many other prophets who lived there, but also a pilgrimage for the many martyrs” both inside and outside the Church, because thousands of Iraqi people, including Muslims, “suffered a lot”.

It was a pilgrimage, the former apostolic nuncio said, that Pope St John Paul II had wanted to undertake, and it was a sign of hope for the future for Christians.

“If the Pope came here, we may still have hope for the future.”

A new reality, he said, is in the building day by day, although he does not have much hope that those who left will ever go back.

Security is improving, Filoni remarked: some shrines and churches have been rebuilt, and some areas are stable, but the Christian presence in the country is more than halved.

“We have to think that at least half of the Christian population is no more in Iraq.”

Cardinal Fernando Filoni
Cardinal Fernando Filoni

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20 March 2023, 08:00