Pope Francis begins a historic visit to Iraq on Friday, the first by a pontiff to the birthplace of the Eastern Churches from where more than a million Christians have fled over the past 20 years.
The visit of the pope has a highly symbolic value given the importance of Iraqi Christians in the history of the faith and their cultural and linguistic legacy dating back to the time of ancient Babylon, nearly 4,000 years ago.
The systematic persecution of Iraqi Christians at the hands of al-Qaeda first and then ISIL (ISIS) in more recent years has pushed tens of thousands into diaspora and is threatening the community’s survival.
Francis will meet the dwindling Christian communities of Baghdad, Mosul and Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city in the Nineveh Plains, where, in 2014, the ISIL armed group wiped out the remnants of the Christian presence that had survived al-Qaeda’s violent campaigns, causing tens of thousands to flee and find refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
In Erbil, the pope will meet the Kurdish authorities and some of the 150,000 Christian refugees from central Iraq that have found shelter there, Aljazeera reports.
“We hope the visit of the pope will bring some attention to the tragedy of Christians in the East and encourage them to stay,” said Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the Iraq-born patriarch of the Chaldean Church, in a news conference on Wednesday.
“It will also bring a message of fraternity to the other Iraqi faiths – that religion should not divide but unite and that we are all Iraqis and equal citizens.”
Before the US-led invasion of 2003, Christians of different denominations numbered about 1.6 million in Iraq. Today, less than 300,000 remain, according to figures provided by the Chaldean Church. Since then 58 churches have been damaged or destroyed and hundreds of Iraqi Christians have been killed for their faith.
Under dictator Saddam Hussein, the Christian communities were tolerated and did not face significant security threats, although they were discriminated against.
The diaspora started after the 2003 US-led invasion and the chaos that ensued when al-Qaeda initiated a campaign of targeted assassinations and kidnappings of priests and bishops, and attacks against churches and Christian gatherings.
In October 2006, an orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, was beheaded and in 2008 the group kidnapped and killed Archbishop Paulos Farah Rahho in Mosul. The same year, another priest and three worshippers were killed inside a church.
In 2010, 48 worshippers were killed in a Syro-Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, where the pope will hold a public meeting on Friday. In 2014, as ISIL occupied Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, the group destroyed more than 30 churches, while the remaining buildings were used as administrative centres, tribunals or prisons, many of which were later bombed as the US-led coalition fought ISIL.
Upon its arrival in Mosul, ISIL asked Christians to convert to Islam, pay a tax or be decapitated. Thousands fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and neighbouring countries.