The Roman Pope’s visit to Iraq, which starts today, is triggering plenty of hope for the war-torn nation. He arrives to Baghdad carrying a message of tolerance and co-existence to a people plagued by three decades of conflict and war. The 84-year-old Pontiff is being hailed for his audacity, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing violence in Iraq. COVID-19 has already claimed the lives of 13,483 people in Iraq at the time of writing, with another 709,000 having tested positive, including the Pope’s own ambassador. Terrorism spiked earlier this year with twin suicide attacks at a Baghdad market, one of the few urban attacks for the last three years by the Islamic State (ISIS), which killed 32 people and injured over-100. Nonetheless, against all odds, Pope Francis arrives to minister to a Christian community that has suffered terribly from Iraq’s long war.
Francis’ program includes praying at the Christian memorial in Mosul—a stone’s throw from the mosque in which ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared for the first time just after the declaration of his “caliphate” in 2014. The Pope will also be visiting the St. Mary al-Tahira Cathedral in Qaraqosh, an Assyrian city in northern Iraq. That cathedral is symbolic, having been looted and damaged by ISIS. He will also hold Sunday mass in Erbil and meet with the Christian community of the Iraqi capital at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of our Lady of Salvation. Two years ago, that same church was earmarked for demolition, with the aim of replacing it with a commercial mall. That was during the tenure of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi, a Communist-turned-(Shi’a) Islamist. At the time, many accused the government of being no better than ISIS, which demolished the St. Elijah Monastery (Dar Mar Elia) in Mosul, Iraq’s oldest Christian site, dating back to the early sixth century.
In addition to ceremonial meetings with President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhemi, the Pope will also be received by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shi’ites. Billboards have been raised throughout the city with a photo of white pigeons flying above Francis and Sistani, along with the slogan: “You are part of us and we are a part of you”.
Those pictures have a strong resemblance to the images of his predecessor, John Paul II, during his Damascus visit in 2001. That Pope famously went to the Grand Umayyad Mosque, hand-in-hand with the country’s aging grand mufti, Ahmad Kaftaro. Despite the high euphoria that came with his Damascus visit, John Paul II was unable to prevent, or even contain, the massive wave of radicalization that ripped through the country exactly ten years later, at the start of the Syrian conflict. It is unlikely that Pope Francis can succeed in Iraq any more than John Paul II did for Syria. Among other things, Francis is scheduled to meet with in effect the converted—those among all faiths who already believe in moderation and co-existence.
“I do not see the Pope speaking to the radicalized” Bilal Wahab, a Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), told EER. “They are not his audience.” Yet this does not mean such meetings are not worthwhile. Wahab went on to say that the Pope’s “Iraq visit and meetings with Christian and Muslim community leaders is a message that boosts the position of moderates who remain a silent majority”.
Not Everyone is Happy
Predictably, there are those who are not pleased by the Pope’s visit. The first to complain were the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’ite jihadists, whose militias dominate the Iraqi state. These groups, Kataib Hezbollah specifically, are particularly opposed to the head of the Catholic Church visiting Najaf, the holiest Shi’a city. The objections of the Iranian proxy militias prompted Muqtada al-Sadr, the renegade Shi’a cleric, to once again try to position himself as the more “moderate” and nationalist Iraqi Shi’a Islamist militia leader, putting out a statement on 13 February saying: “Opening up to other religions is good and we welcome the visit. Our hearts and homes are open to him.”
Within Sunni Iraq, the camp that participates in the country’s political system—which includes the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Islamic Party”—has kept generally quiet. This is not that surprising: marginalized in post-caliphate Iraq, there is little reward and significant risk for these parties in commenting on this matter. What is surprising is that the rejectionist Sunnis, a camp now owned by the jihadi-Salafists of ISIS, has also, uncharacteristically, been quiet. To date, they have not said a word about the Papal visit, paradoxically raising fears that they might be seriously planning something terrible.
Over the past six years, ISIS have made various threats towards the Roman Church, most famously directly threatening to “conquer Rome”. In 2015, ISIS’s magazine Dabiq featured the Vatican’s St Peter’s Square on its cover, with a photo-shopped ISIS flag flying over its central obelisk. In November 2017, Newsweek revealed an ISIS propaganda poster showing one ISIS jihadi beheading Pope Francis. Its header read: “O Worshippers of the Cross, I swear to avenge every single drop of blood that you spilled and every house that you have destroyed. You will not even enjoy living in your homes, Allah willing.” The same report spoke of another ISIS poster calling for an attack on the Vatican during the Christmas holidays. One year later, another image made the rounds on jihadi networks, with a gun being pointed at Pope Francis and the words: “Don’t think you are safe”.
Ironically, Pope Francis has made reference to ISIS, during a video message released two weeks ago on the sixth anniversary of the massacre of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya at the hands of ISIS. Describing ISIS’s “brutality”, Francis described the victims from the “Coptic sister church” as “our saints”; catholic does, after all, mean “universal”.
A License to Kill
ISIS might be keeping quiet about this visit but their views on the Roman Pontiff and his votaries—indeed of Christians more generally—is well-known. ISIS takes its cue from the teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah, the fourteenth-century Muslim scholar and spiritual father of the Salafi movement, who issued an infamous series of fatwas in the wake of the Mongol conquests ruling that all Shi’as and Alawis should be destroyed. His prescription for Christians, against whom he wrote furious polemics, did not quite go that far, though the founder of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006, did say in his final address: “Muslims will have no victory or superiority over the aggressive infidels such as the Jews and the Christians until there is a total annihilation.”
When ISIS actually had the chance to implement its regime, it did not go as far as Zarqawi suggested—or not generally. An ISIS court ruled that Christians living within ISIS territory had three options: to convert to Islam, to pay a religious levy (jizya) amounting to about 20% of an individual income, or to be slaughtered, presumably having their heads be chopped off in classical ISIS-style. In this, ISIS also claimed legitimacy from a flawed interpretation of verses 1-5 from Surat al-Tawbah in the Holy Qur’an. The Pope of Rome, however, is visiting Mosul, where the Christians refused to comply with ISIS’s demands and were massacred; the fact that in theory ISIS has not marked all Christians for extermination is cold comfort.
Even in the aftermath of ISIS’s rule, Christians are in a very difficult position. Those who managed to escape ISIS-ruled Mosul to other parts of Iraq now live in fear, either of ISIS’s ongoing guerrilla-terrorist campaign or the Iranian-controlled militias. Iraqi Christians have hidden their Cross and any iconography of Jesus Christ, with many going further in their attempt to fit in by putting on an Islamic hijab and memorizing Islamic sayings. Unsurprisingly, to avoid the choice of terror or indignity, many other Christians left Iraq altogether. Iraqi Christians also have to live with the psychic scar of knowing not only that there has not been and will not be justice for what was done to them, but that many of the terrorists who did these things—who murdered their neighbors, friends, and family—are still at large and quite possibly living close to them, having shaved their beards with the collapse of the caliphate and blended back in to normal life, working as shopkeepers, street vendors, and so on.
While the Pope’s visit cannot heal Iraq, it is important. The Pope-Ayatollah meeting is “certainly coming to the attention of ISIS”, says Ibrahim al-Marashi, an associate professor of history at California State University, when speaking to EER. “Based on ISIS’ past of persecuting Iraqi Catholics (and other Christian denominations) and massacring the Shiites, the meeting serves as a rebuke to the terrorist group’s actions, as well as serving as a significant milestone in Iraqi history and the global history of inter-faith dialogue.”
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