Let us hope region heeds Pope Francis’ message of peace
God knows, Iraq could do with some good news. Coronavirus disease infection rates are running at more than 4,000 a day. Protesters are being killed and wounded again in Nasiriyah and elsewhere in the south. The government has pledged to bring to justice previous assassins of activists: They remain at large. The Biden administration has just launched airstrikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid Al-Shuhada positions on the Syrian border: They and other Shiite militias continue to attack and threaten US targets (and not just US, as Irbil airport was rocketed recently) with impunity and, like a bunch of cheap Mafiosi, oppress and kill the very Iraqis they claim to protect. Turkey feels free to bully the Kurds (what’s new?). Meanwhile, Iran does what it usually does — undermines other states, enriches uranium, openly attacks vessels in international waters, and arrogantly tells the Iraqi government how to manage its own affairs.
I am convinced that most Iraqis want to live in peace with their neighbors in a country they call their own. They are proud of the extraordinary communal, confessional, social and ethnic mosaic which that great Iraqi scholar, the late Ali Al-Wardi, saw as Iraq’s most distinctive characteristic.
So the forthcoming visit by Pope Francis — the first by any pontiff — will be a ray of light, if it goes ahead (which I fervently pray it does). It will certainly give hope and comfort to Iraqi Christians, but also perhaps to millions more of all faiths across the region. It will tell them they are not forgotten. Above all, after so much suffering, the visit will bring a message of peace and reconciliation. I wish I were still there to see it: As a Catholic myself, I see it as a blessing for the future, but also a call to memory.
On a melancholy November day 11 years ago, I stood with head bowed in the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad as a packed congregation mourned those — fellow worshippers, priests, police and bystanders — murdered in cold blood by Daesh at Sunday Mass on Oct. 31, 2010. The total number of dead was perhaps 60, with another 80 or so wounded, many seriously. Seven coffins represented them all. Among the congregation were two or three other ambassadors and — notably and bravely — Sayyid Ammar Al-Hakim, then the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the two major established Shiite political movements in the country, and the bearer of a proud and resonant name. All around the church, there was a heavy security presence: Snipers on roofs, armored vehicles blocking streets, police and loitering mukhabarat. I thought of Christ’s warning to Simon Peter: “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” It is not an injunction the Christian churches or Christian leaders have always observed: It is difficult to turn the other cheek and the deadly sin of pride is seductive. But it lies at the heart of the Christian gospel.
Christianity was born in the Middle East and for centuries remained the most widely practiced religion, even after political power had slipped away. In 1918, Christians still made up about a quarter of the region’s population. Now they are down to about a 20th. The Ottomans, in their confident heyday, were generally tolerant but would still hang a patriarch or two when they thought the Greeks were causing trouble. During their long 19th-century decline, with pressure from Russia increasing and the subject populations of the Balkans restive, they became more militantly repressive. The targeted killing of Ottoman Christians did not start in 1915. As the distinguished Turkish historian Taner Akcam has extensively documented, its roots go much deeper. Mount Lebanon saw an early civil war in 1860, with mainly Druze forces carrying out pogroms of Christians. The Bulgarian massacres of 1876 became a cause celebre in Europe.
The visit will certainly give hope and comfort to Iraqi Christians, but also perhaps to millions more of all faiths.
Sir John Jenkins
Other communities have also suffered, of course. The Yazidis, Shabak, Druze, Alawites, Amazigh, Tuareg and others have suffered in often horrifying ways. In 1918, the Jewish community of Baghdad made up perhaps 40 percent of the total population. There were significant populations of Jews, Parsees and Armenians in Basra. Cairo, Alexandria, Mosul and Aleppo were four of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world. Sadly, no longer.
But Jews have a state now. The Shiites have thrived even under the brutal authoritarianism of the Khomeinist regime in Iran and are now a privileged class in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Christians have not been so fortunate. In Egypt, where Copts still make up perhaps a tenth of the total population, there has long been a steady trickle of emigration, but it became a flood when the Muslim Brotherhood took power in 2012. When the Brotherhood was overthrown, its supporters attacked Christian targets in revenge: Christians, having no tribal networks of support, are defenseless. In the Palestinian territories, where Christ once walked, Christians previously represented perhaps a third of the total population. They are now less than a 20th. The same is true of Iraq, the land of the patriarchs. It is a sad and troubling history.
And this matters in complex ways. The late Yasser Arafat used to say to me that the continued presence of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land was of fundamental importance to him. They were the leaven — “khamira” — in Palestinian society. Without them, it risked becoming flat, monocultural and extreme. You could apply the same principle to the minority communities of Iraq. It is wonderful that Muslims in Mosul are keen to encourage — and the UAE to fund — the rebuilding not just of their mosques but also the churches that Daesh destroyed, while Assyrians are returning to the Nineveh plains and Yazidis are slowly coming back to Sinjar. But it was Kurdish irregulars who harassed the wretched Armenians on their trail of tears in 1915. It was Bakr Sidqi who carried out the first massacre of Assyrians in modern Iraq in 1933. Shabak neighbors sought to take their land when Daesh appeared. And Shiite militias are now settling their own supporters where Yazidi and Christian villages once stood. Many Iraqi Christians — like the Copts — have emigrated in despair. There is a long way to go.
The very name Francis, assumed by the pope upon his election, brings to mind the simplicity of Saint Francis of Assisi, who was allowed to preach before the Ayyubid Sultan Al-Kamil, the nephew of the great Salahuddin, and to return unharmed to his coreligionists during the bloody Fifth Crusade 800 years ago. A similar willingness to reach out across confessional and sectarian boundaries is characteristic of this pope. And it is needed now more than ever in a world where often violent identity politics risk destroying a sense of our common humanity.
Pope Francis will visit not just Baghdad but also Najaf, where he will call on Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani (in itself a message to us all), Irbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh. He will meet the president, prime minister and other senior officials working for Iraq’s future. He will see the appalling destruction wreaked by Daesh and hear the witness of those whom it persecuted. He will celebrate Mass for the Catholic faithful. He will see Nasiriyah, the city of Abraham, for himself — and hold an interreligious meeting at the plain of Ur. Not everybody will welcome his visit. He will need to guard against those who wish to instrumentalize his presence for their own purposes. He will need to bear witness to the suffering of all communities in Iraq and the wider region. He will need to be frank with Iraqi politicians about the need for justice. He will, of course, be a diplomat and a statesman in a way that St. Francis wasn’t. But his message will be similar: We are human beings, children of God, and we need to know and love each other better. I hope that message is heard not just in Baghdad but across the world.
• Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.