Earlier this month, Pope Francis made a historic visit to Iraq, the first pope in the history of the Catholic Church to do so. During his trip, which lasted from March 5th to 8th, Pope Francis visited several cities across Iraq preaching a message of peace and co-existence and urging for Iraq’s Muslim majority to embrace and protect the country’s Christian minority.
In the words of Pope Francis, “Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism, incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups.” Iraqi religious minorities have often been mistreated. After the United States’ invasion of Iraq, in 2003, the power vacuum led to a civil war that was the perfect environment for the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists and targeting Christians and other religious minorities.
ISIS terrorists sought to create a homogenous Islamic state through the religious cleansing of the non-Muslim citizens. In the process, they killed and expelled thousands of Iraqi Christians from the northern areas of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains. They, also, killed and enslaved several Yazidi communities and defaced their places of worship. In the first two decades of the 21st century, the population of the Iraqi Christian community has dropped from 1.5 million to around 300,000 citizens, as hundreds of thousands are either being killed or fleeing the country to escape violence. The Yazidi community has been similarly decimated. Even though ISIS was declared defeated in 2017, they are still active in some regions, up till today. Additionally, Iraq still represents a battleground for international conflicts, such as the ongoing war between the U.S. and Iran.
In fact, the violence that Pope Francis came to Iraq to address, almost prevented the historic trip from happening. Only a week before the pope left, there was a rocket attack at Al Assad air base in Iraq, which hosts US troops as part of a multinational coalition assisting in fighting what remains of ISIS. The attack is suspected to have been carried out by Shi’a militias supported by Iran. A month before that, a suicide bombing by ISIS in Baghdad killed 32 people.
Perhaps the most noteworthy part of Pope Francis’ visit is a meeting he had with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most senior leaders in Shi’a Islam. Al-Sistani has long been a voice for peace and unity amongst all Iraqi citizens, not just the Shi’a majority, calling for restraint from sectarian violence in 2003 and inspiring religious and ethnic groups to join forces against ISIS in a fatwa issued in 2014. After their meeting, al-Sistani’s office released a statement that “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with enjoying their full constitutional rights.”
Other visits during the trip included the ancient city Ur, which holds significance in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures. Ur is the birth place of Abraham, the father of all the prophets. The pope used the city’s historic significance to breakdown ideas of Judeo-Christian and Islamic civilizations being in conflict. He, also, visited the northern Syrian cities of Mosul and Qaraqosh where he visited Iraqi Christian sites that had been attacked and defaced by ISIS.
While the visit is a symbolic gesture more than anything else, Brookings Institute research fellow Marsin Alshamary says that for many “that is more than enough” for these communities for which the honor of being recognized and valued by the pope from his visit is a source of great joy. However, as others such as Al Jazeera’s Ibrahim Al-Marashi recognize interfaith dialogue can only go so far to help religious minorities and the true path to recovery requires “providing physical and economic security for their communities which cannot happen while the Iraqi state continues to experience instability and its cohesion is constantly undermined by foreign forces.”
Of course, the effort to help rebuild the devastated communities of these Iraqi religious minorities cannot happen through symbolic meetings. But this meeting has the potential to put more formal forces of good into action. Washington Post reporter Ishaan Tharoor wrote that for the Iraqis he spoke to “the pope commands a moral authority that perhaps no secular Western leader” can equal, especially those who have contributed to instability in the Middle East. In this sense, perhaps the pope’s visit to the country alongside the support of a great Shi’a leader like al-Sistani is enough to create local provision amongst Iraqi Muslims to support fellow Iraqis belonging to religious minority groups, and help them flourish together.
There is even some chance that the visit may have an impact on some of the foreign forces, which continue to cause problems for Iraqis, in general. The White House put out a statement from President Joe Biden congratulating the Iraqi government and people for the success of the pope’s visit and spoke highly of the pope’s message. There is also a hope that the peaceful engagement between Christian and Shi’a leaders in Iraq will send a message to more hardline Ayatollahs in Iran. While I doubt that this visit will be the thing to stop conflict between the U.S. and Iran, at the very least it does bring global attention to these communities of religious communities which may cause either side to think twice about using Iraq as a proxy for their conflict, for fear of international backlash.