VATICAN CITY (RNS) — In Iraq, the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of three major faiths, religion has rarely so divided the country, and Christians, descendants of one of their faith’s oldest communities, feel more threatened than they have in living memory.
The Rev. Karam Qasha, a parish priest of the Chaldean Catholic Church of St. George in Telskuf, in northern Iraq, is among those hoping Pope Francis can mend the “broken trust” between the country’s Christians and Muslims and give courage to frightened Christians.
Francis will visit Iraq March 5-8, making good on St. John Paul II’s attempt to travel to Iraq in 2000 when failed negotiations with the government of Saddam Hussein prevented John Paul from visiting.
Francis is expected to visit Ur, thought to be the birthplace of Abraham, and to meet with political and religious representatives in the country.
“Perhaps his presence will heal the many wounds in the hearts of many faithful and show that the church didn’t abandon its faithful,” Qasha told reporters on Thursday (Feb. 4) while visiting Rome.
According to the priest, “this visit won’t be just for Iraq, but all of the Middle East.”
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The pope will also visit the Nineveh Plains, considered the cradle of Christianity in the Middle East and still the home to the majority of Iraq’s Christians. It is also the backdrop to some of the most desperate persecution that many Christians suffered at the hands of the Islamic State group.
“In Nineveh, the first who came to steal our homes were our neighbors, the Muslims from the villages surrounding ours,” explained Quasha, who experienced the raids firsthand.
Qasha said that tensions have always existed among Iraq’s faith groups, but matters worsened after a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003 and overthrew Hussein.
“After that many faithful were killed, threatened or fired from their work,” the priest said. Dozens of Christian churches were destroyed by terrorist attacks and many clergy members were killed. In 2008 the Chaldean Catholic Archeparch of Mosul was kidnapped and killed. Two years later, six terrorists attacked the Syrian Catholic Church of our Lady of Help in Baghdad, killing 48 Christians and injuring many others.
ISIS forces swept through the Nineveh Plains starting in 2014, capturing Mosul and forcing its citizens to take refuge in Turkey and Syria. The invaders gave Mosul’s Christians an ultimatum: Convert to Islam or pay the jiziya, a tax decided arbitrarily by ISIS occupiers. In the end, Qasha said, Christians were allowed to leave the city if they left their belongings and identification documents behind.
“For them, Christians shouldn’t even have an identity in the country,” he said. “We left everything behind, but not the most important thing, the one that has saved us from the very beginning to today — our faith.”
American and Kurdish forces retook Mosul and the surrounding area in 2016, and the U.S. began a planned reconstruction program. The Roman Catholic Church played a crucial role in funding and promoting the resurgence of the region’s Christian and Muslim communities.
The number of Christians in the area has dropped from an estimated 1.4 million in 2003 to barely 300,000 today. The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with a crippled economy, has made the survival of the remaining Christians community even more uncertain. Qasha said locals are aware that ISIS isn’t entirely vanquished and fear still pervades daily life. “It takes a lot of time, work and determination to change mindsets.”
A crucial step in Christian-Muslim relations in Iraq will be the meeting between Francis and the Shiite leader Ali al-Sistani. The pope, who co-signed a document on human fraternity in 2019 with Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, considers the meeting with al-Sistani another important step in promoting dialogue with Muslims in the Middle East.
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“Muslims will view it as a meeting between two great personages,” the Iraqi priest said. “For Christians, I believe that it will also be important to promote peace between us and others, where trust was interrupted. But we are ready to restart.”
Whether Iraq’s Christians are prepared to forgive the ravages of the past two decades remains to be seen, Qasha said. “I think forgiveness is possible when there is the most important thing: the possibility of having a dignified life,” he said.