Despite pope euphoria, Iraq Christians left without illusions

Iraqi Christians say they will “never forget the joy” of Pope Francis’ historic visit to the country but they don’t expect it to stem the minority’s exodus from the country.

Iraqi Christians pray at St. Joseph Church in central Baghdad on March 10, 2021, during a mass held following the visit of Pope Francis to the country. – Iraqi Christians say they will “never forget the joy” of Pope Francis’ historic visit to the country but they don’t expect it to stem the minority’s exodus from the country. Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP

Wajdane Nouri, a Christian in her fifties, will soon join her daughters in the United States.

At the St. Joseph Cathedral, where she has long led the choir, huge posters and a red carpet still bear witness to the first ever papal visit to Iraq.

Earlier this month, Francis led a mass in Baghdad, ravaged for 40 years by wars and economic crises, shortly after having prayed in a church that was the scene a decade ago of the bloodiest anti-Christian attack in Iraq.

For Nouri and the estimated 400,000 other Christians left in Iraq, the pope’s words that no one should be treated like a “second class citizen” and against “the plague of corruption” in the country resonated deep.

Those who were reluctant to speak to the media before Francis flew in are today irrepressible.

The pontiff has emboldened them to air their grievances.

But since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 2003 US-led invasion, the Christian community has shrunk from six to just one percent of the predominantly Muslim country’s population.

And only large job creation projects can head off emigrations, warned Father Nadheer Dakko, a priest at Saint Joseph.

‘No change in everyday life’

The Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani who met with the pope said he was working to ensure that Christians can live “in peace” and with “all their constitutional rights”.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, for his part, declared a “national day of tolerance” between the faiths.

But “we must not only have national days, grand theories must be transformed into action”, said Dakko.

“So far, we have not felt any change in our everyday life.”

As for Nouri, her youngest child is nearing university age.

She will be sent to study in the United States, because in Iraq, “there are no opportunities… only a few make it” in a system known for its clientelism, she said.

Sara, another Christian among a handful who turned up for mass, has seen almost all her family and friends go into exile.

“They don’t even consider coming back,” said Sara, who works in the civil service.

And in a country where the constitution states “Islam is the state religion and the source of legislation”, the pope’s calls for “freedom of religion and conscience” are likely to go unheeded, warned William Warda of the Hammourabi minority rights watchdog.

Saadallah Mikhail, a 61-year-old Christian, has still not been able to rebuild his house in Mosul that he fled in 2014 when the Islamic State (IS) group burst into the northern city.

He was among the first to return once the jihadists had been expelled after fierce fighting three years later.

But he has had to rent because his home in the Old City is nothing more than a pile of rubble.

“The homes of my relatives and 3,000 Christians are still in ruins and I don’t think they will be rebuilt anytime soon.”

So far in Mosul, of 50,000 cases of compensation for destroyed homes, only a few thousand families have received funds from Baghdad, which is mired in the worst economic crisis in its history.

That’s why many of the Christians who flocked to see Pope Francis while he was in northern Iraq had travelled down from Iraqi Kurdistan further north where they have been living.

In front of the pope, local officials repeatedly called on Christians to return “to their homes” in Mosul.

But, “we cannot tell people to come back without providing them with security, hospitals, schools and infrastructure”, said Warda.

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