The monumental decision taken by Pope Francis to visit Iraq in March will no doubt be one for the history books.
Although the current pontiff is no stranger to visiting territories plagued by conflict and seemingly perpetual violence, this will be the first time a Pope has ever visited Iraq, a country which is the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of the three great monotheistic religions.
Iraq – ancient Mesopotamia – is therefore sacred to followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Iraq is the country of Prophet Jonah who lived in Nineveh and called for repentance and permanent return to God. It is also the country in which the people were exiled in the Old Testament during a merciless trip called the ‘exile’ to Babylon.
The Vatican announced in December that Pope Francis would break his 15-month hiatus from travel due to the Covid-19 pandemic to make an apostolic journey to the Middle Eastern country on March 5-8 this year. He is expected to visit Baghdad, the plain of Ur, Mosul, and Qaraqosh.
Primate of All-Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, who visited Archbishop Matti Warda of Erbil, Iraq, two years ago, told The Irish Catholic: “I was delighted to hear that Pope Francis had clearly prioritised the situation of Christians in Iraq for a papal visit. I think we’re all very pleased that Pope Francis feels well enough and indeed safe enough to be able to travel again, to put his very first visit after such a break as a visit with Christians, Catholics in Iraq.
“It’s dear to my own heart because two years ago, almost to the day, I was in Iraq myself visiting Archbishop Warda and some of the communities in the Ninevah Plain, who had been so impacted by the awful situation of ISIS and the aftermath. It has left the situation of the Catholic parishes completely devastated.”
Archbishop Eamon said for Pope Francis to want to reach out to Iraqi Christians is “totally in tune with the sort of mission that Pope Francis has always had, seeking out the peripheries, seeking out the marginalised, having a particular soft spot in his heart for refugees and for communities that have been displaced or terrorised due to war and violence, so in many ways a visit to Iraq fits so neatly with Pope Francis’ ethos and mission”.
“For me it’s particularly important, because first of all it’s important to remember that the Christian communities there are very, very ancient, going right back to the very dawn of Christianity – the very first Christians who settled in those Ninevah plains, and then to wind the clock forward to today and to remember as we do, especially at Christmas time, the awful situation of Christians in Iraq, only just four or five years ago, when one of the last pushes forward of Daesh of ISIS completely devastated their communities,” he said.
The number of Christians in the country has drastically diminished in the past two decades due to violence and persecution.
In 2003, before a US-led coalition invaded to depose Saddam Hussein, there were around 1-1.4 million Christians in the country.
A drawn-out war and the 2014-2017 occupation of the Plain of Nineveh by the so-called Islamic State reduced their number to between 3-400,000.
Iraq’s president and prime minister have often invited Christians who have fled the country to return and help rebuild the nation.
However, an economic crisis, corruption and the devastating effects of conflict which led to 1.7 million people being internally displaced has impeded recovery
UNICEF estimates that some 4 million Iraqis require humanitarian assistance, of whom half are children. Covid-19 has accentuated these issues.
Archbishop Eamon visited Iraq in December 2018, a visit he says remains in his memory particularly at Christmas time.
He said: “I had the opportunity to visit some parishes and some villages out on the Ninevah plains, near Mosul. That particular visit just stays with me particularly at Christmas time because the people were basically walking through rubble and the devastation of their villages.
“One particular village stands out called Batnaya, and I actually walked the streets of Batnaya, really there was nothing left.
“The images which particularly stand out in my head are of the churches completely destroyed with hateful graffiti written on them, also to see graveyards and cemeteries destroyed – something that I just really felt must go to the very core of people’s being.”
The archbishop said he went to the country “in solidarity” with the Christian community, adding that Archbishop Warda has links to Ireland having spent time with the Redemptorists in Dundalk.
Speaking of Archbishop Warda he said: “He has been really vocal in trying to draw the attention of the world to the plight of Christians in Iraq so I wanted to visit him and to bring him greetings of solidarity from Ireland and I was also aware that some our charities like Trócaire and Aid to the Church in Need Ireland have been very active in supporting Christians in Iraq over the years.
“What Archbishop Warda said to me was, ‘look resources are now beginning to come our way but what we need to know is your prayers and your solidarity’ and that’s why I think a visit from Pope Francis will be hugely meaningful for him and his communities.”
Regarding his interactions with Christians on the coalface in Iraq, Archbishop Eamon said: “When I was in a parish called Tel Kaif, I met there with the parish council and they told me that one of their greatest sadnesses is the fact that large numbers of their young people and their young families had left and they said that they understood why they had left because all you had to do was look around and see the devastation, the lack of job opportunities, the lack of hope and therefore many young people had left, so much so that the percentage of the Christian community there had essentially gone down to about 30% of what it had been even 10, 20 years ago.
“Therefore, they said, ‘in order to attract our young people back we need education, we need health services and we need jobs and also a sense of security and hope for the future’.
“So Archbishop Warda has established a Catholic university in Erbil, he had also been building a new hospital, and this is one of the areas where the Irish donations had helped in the establishment of a health clinic and thirdly the idea of attracting jobs and giving confidence and hope for the future and therefore our visit and indeed of course above all Pope Francis’ visit I hope will inspire young people who still have a great longing for their homeland to feel secure and safe enough to return home and yes of course that would be a very welcome outcome because for us to lose the presence of Christianity in those ancient lands would be a horrific eventuality and the likes of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, Aid to the Church in Need, Trócaire, they’re all working together with many other charities to try to ensure that the Holy Lands and the ancient lands of the Bible will not be completely depleted of Christians.”