Juhani Huttunen
Juhani Huttunen

How Pope Francis’ middle-way strategy failed in Iraq

Pope Francis at the Hosh al-Bieaa centre in Mosul. (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Pope Francis made church history recently by his four-day long stay in Iraq. The leader of Roman Catholic Church toured places where thousands of Christians had been slaughtered by ISIS only few years ago.

For years, liberal Christians in the prosperous West were more or less embarrassed to hear news of the persecution of their co-religionists in the Middle East. At worst, their persecution was, and still, is a taboo for many of them wishing to emphasize the history of colonialism as the root of most the concerns of today’s world. The persecution of Christians began soon after Saddam Hussein was toppled eighteen years ago. These subjugated, persecuted Christians have never had anything to do with Western colonialism.

Now, at the ruins of Mosul, Pope Francis witnessed with his own eyes the horrific trauma of these surviving Christians. However, he did not vow revenge. Instead, he said, “Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.”

The goal of the Pope’s visit was to express solidarity to the persecuted Christian minority and to improve Christian–Islamic interfaith relations. If the media reporting is to be believed, the trip was worth it, and Francis achieved all of his goals just fine. In Qatar state media Al Jazeera, the Pope’s amicable appearance made American professor Ibrahim Al-Marashi compare Francis to his own role model, Francis of Assisi, a 13th-century mystic preacher and strong opponent of Crusades. Even Iranian state media PressTV published at least five articles on the Pope’s visit, one headlined, “General Soleimani’s anti-terror efforts made Iraq safe enough for Pope to visit: Iranian official.”

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Iraq’s top politicians gave their best when they met the Pope, and the day Francis landed at the Kurdistan airport in Erbil, locals greeted him in colourful traditional clothing and waved olive branches. As Kurdish Rudaw news site reported, the former president of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, tweeted that the pope’s visit is “indeed historic, carrying the noble message of peaceful co-existence.” At the airport, the current President of Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani said that Kurdistan Region has always supported “dialogue and peace, and believes in freedom and coexistence.”

During his visit, the pontiff also met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 90-year old spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia population. According to reports, Sistani “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights.”

The Pope’s trip was a continuation of his visit to the United Arab Emirates two years ago. Then, he embraced the Sunnis. This time it was Shiite’s turn.  In the UAE, Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar university of Cairo, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayyeb, signed an interfaith document called Human Fraternity. The document promotes interfaith harmony and peace by stating, “God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want His name to be used to terrorize people.” In Iraq, Francis had hopes that Sistani would have joined him and el-Tayyeb by signing the very same document. However, Sistani said no.

For both of his visits, the Pope chose his destinations very carefully. While travelling to the Sunni world, he toured the Muslim Brotherhood and hard line Wahhabis afar. Similarly, when the Pope met with the Shiite clergy, he sought neutral ground to avoid awkward questions about Iran, which is in a hurry to build a nuclear weapon.

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However, there appears to be some weaknesses in the Pope’s midway strategy. First, even Sistani is dependent on Iran. When the notorious Iranian Quds Force leader Qasem Suleimani was killed near Baghdad by the US in the early January 2020, Sistani expressed immediate condolences to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. In their article published by Foreign Policy in late January 2020, London-based scholars Mohammad R. Kalantari and Ali Hashem argued that when it comes to external threats, members of the Shiite religious elite remain very loyal to each other regardless of their country of origin.

For Sistani, Qasem Suleimani was a safeguard against Sunni extremism. In June 2014, Sistani issued a fatwa obligating Iraqis to fight against Isis. This, of course, sounds reasonable, but for Christians and other non-Muslim minorities, the fatwa proved to be very dangerous, for Sistani’s fatwa led to the founding of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU), an Iran-backed umbrella for about forty paramilitary organizations, which regularly humiliate, persecute and dishonor people of other faiths. Some of these factions, such as Kataib Hezbollah, use symbols similar to that of the Lebanese Hezbollah. The former leader of the PMU, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was an advisor to the Quds Force, the external operations arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In the Ninive Plains, there are still some 32.000 Christians under control of the PMU forces. According to Open Doors, an organization focusing solely on persecution of Christians, the PMU forces often target Christians violently. Moreover, members of the PMU have formed political wings in their militias. These parties, according to Open Doors sources, try to “bring about demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to relocate to traditionally Christian areas in the Nineveh Plain region, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province.” What makes the plight of Christians inconsolable is the fact that this persecution is institutionalized and government-driven. Even in the Kurdistan region, the Christians are not fully safe from being oppressed.

Pope Francis must have been well informed about these details. Hence, serious questions arise. How is it possible to spread a message of forgiveness when no one really has asked for forgiveness for all the evil they have done to Christians and other minorities during the past years? Furthermore, if the Pope proclaims the message of forgiveness, on whose behalf does he have the authority to forgive? As the Open Doors data shows, the persecution is still going on, and last year it worsened significantly. The Pope offered reconciliation but with who?

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Each year, Open Doors releases a so-called World Watch List, which ranks fifty countries in which Christians face persecution and discrimination. For twenty years, the worst place in the world for Christians has been North Korea. The second worst regimes have all been Islamist countries. A nice to know fact is that out of the ten worst countries for Christians, five are currently members of the United Nations Human Rights Council. For many years, both Iran and Iraq have been about the tenth worst countries for Christians.

In this respect, Francis indeed chose his destination wisely. Yet it is wrong to assume that after Isis there would be a new beginning for Christians. Of course, I cannot but underline that we do not really know what Francis and Sistani told each other. However, the public statement issued by Sistani was anything but a truthful show of compassion for Iraqi Christians.

According to the statement, His Eminence, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani “talked about the injustice, oppression, poverty, religious and intellectual persecution, suppression of basic freedoms and the absence of social justice, especially the wars, acts of violence, economic blockade, displacement and so on, especially the Palestinian people in the occupied territories.”

Really? Here we can see Iranian propaganda machinery in full swing. Part of this propaganda is that Sistani does not mention a word about the famine in Yemen, for example. Who knows if the Pope reminded him about it before returning to the suffering of the Christian minority in Iraq.

About the Author
Juhani Huttunen is a Finnish journalist who has focused on the Middle East issues. He is of a Lutheran Christian background. Views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect any official position of any agency or media company.
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