Almost every Catholic — indeed, it seems almost everyone — knows Pope Francis is making what is being called “an apostolic journey” to Iraq. Exactly where Francis is going, whom he will meet, and perhaps most importantly why he is doing this is not so well understood. Today, I’d like to offer a kind of “fact sheet” on Francis’ journey, with a focus on the where and the why.
Iraq is roughly the size of California, with a population of 38.8 million people. Although the historical region of Mesopotamia has a history well over 5,000 years old, Iraq as a nation-state is relatively modern and somewhat artificially constructed.
Broadly speaking, there are three large sections in modern Iraq. Mosul in the north is religiously Sunni Muslim and Christian, and ethnically Arab, with Kurds and other minorities. Baghdad in the center is comprised mostly of Sunni Muslims, with a shrinking Christian minority; all are Arab. Basra in the south is overwhelmingly Shi’ite Muslim and Arab, with a significant Iranian minority. These tend to introduce certain centrifugal forces into Iraq as a modern nation-state.
Baghdad, the capital of modern Iraq, was also the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258), which extended from North Africa to the border of China. While in Baghdad, the pope will meet with Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, and Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
The pope will be greeted and accompanied by Louis Raphael I Sako, patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans and head of the Chaldean Catholic Church. While there are several Catholic and non-Catholic Eastern churches, the Chaldean Catholic Church is the largest. Nevertheless, it is a small minority in the overall population. Christians have been leaving Iraq in large numbers since the turn of the millennium, with an estimated decrease from 1.5 million to about 200,000 in the past 20 years.
Najaf and the Catholic-Shi’ite Muslim Encounter
On 6 March, Pope Francis will meet with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Hussayni al-Sistani in Najaf in southern Iraq. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani (pronounced: as-Sistani) is arguably one of the most prominent religious authorities in Shi’ite Islam. While strictly avoiding political partisanship, Ayatollah al-Sistani has played a major role in trying to bring together a modern, religiously pluralistic Iraq and Islam. During the ISIS persecution, he welcomed Christians and Yazidis to southern Iraq.
For centuries, Najaf, about 50 miles south of Karbala, was the intellectual and theological center for Shi’ite Islam. Najaf and Karbala are two of the most important cities in the Shi’ite world and they are centers of learning and pilgrimage for Shi’ite Muslims worldwide.
The visit of Pope Francis with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is rich in symbolism and promise for the future, not only for Catholic-Shi’ite Muslim relations but for the entire Middle East.
The Patriarch Abraham was born in “Ur of the Chaldeans.” In Genesis 11:27-32, we read: “Terah fathered Abram … Haran (a son of Terah) died in the presence of his father Terah in his native land, Ur of the Chaldeans …. Terah took his son Abram … and made them leave Ur of the Chaldeans to go the land of Canaan.”
Terah’s family settled in Haran. It is generally held that the place name Haran refers to the modern city of Harran in the Turkish province of Sanliurfa. Abram, later Abraham, was called by God to leave Haran and go the land of Canaan, where he would become the father of a mighty people.
Traditionally, Abraham is looked upon as the physical and spiritual father of Jews, Christians and Muslims. One speaks of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as “the Abrahamic religions.”
Scholars have dated the settlement at Ur to as early as 4500 B.C. On 6 March, Francis will participate in an interreligious meeting in al-Nasiriya, a southern Iraqi city not far from the ruins at Ur. What more appropriate place for an interfaith encounter than the birthplace of Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam?
Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan and Mosul, the Plain of Nineveh
Pope Francis will head to northern Iraq for the second half of his visit. He will be accompanied by Patriarch Sako. While in northern Iraq, Francis will meet with Nechirvan Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, and Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan region. He will be hosted and accompanied by Archbishop Bashar M. Warda, the Chaldean archeparch of Erbil.
The situation of Christians in Iraq began to deteriorate around the turn of the millennium. The deterioration accelerated with the U.S. attack on Iraq on 19 March 2003. The emergence of different terrorist groups — and, finally, the emergence of the Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliphate on 29 June 2014 — made a bad situation for Christians even worse.
Since the beginning of the millennium, some Iraqi Christians began to move to the Plain of Nineveh near Mosul, where Christians formed a considerable and very ancient minority. Cities such Qaraqosh, Tel Keyf and Tel Skuf became Christian centers.
The fall of Mosul to ISIS in June 2014 forced thousands of Christians to flee the Plain of Nineveh and to take refuge in Erbil, situated in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. Thousands of Christians were welcomed by the Kurds and by Archbishop Warda.
While in northern Iraq, the pope will visit places such as Qaraqosh, where there had been thriving Christians communities before the ISIS terror. Many of these places are now in ruins. The pope will offer prayers for the victims of war in Mosul, one of the biggest cities in Iraq, largely destroyed by ISIS.
ISIS has been driven out of Mosul and is in retreat in northern Iraq. Nevertheless, the situation is far from good. Many of the Christians who fled ISIS for Erbil have left the country forever. The younger population has been reduced. The costs of reconstructing cities destroyed by ISIS are huge and some Iraqi Christians wonder if it is — or ever will be — secure enough to justify those expenditures.
Why: Remembrance and Fraternity
The visit of Pope Francis to Iraq, in one sense the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has many reasons. First and foremost, Francis wants to remind the Christians of Iraq that they have not been forgotten. The pope, Catholics, indeed all Christians deeply care about the fate and future of Christians in Iraq.
A tireless “bridge builder” (Latin: pontifex), Francis is anxious to build bridges of peace and fraternity with Muslims, the second-largest religion on the planet. Francis’ deep awareness that we also share the same planet drives him to work for peace — for friendship and fraternity — with all our fellow human beings.
As part of a suffering humanity, it is logical that he would visit Christians and Muslims in Iraq to work toward that goal.
A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.