Pope Francis in Iraq (March 3)

Minorities hope for clear words

The visit of the head of the Roman Catholic Church is eagerly awaited in Iraq and Kurdistan. "It is especially the members of the minorities who are hoping that Pope Francis will be able to sensitize the central government in Baghdad and the regional government in Kurdistan to the concerns of the Christians, the Yazidis, Mandaeans, and other communities," stated Dr. Kamal Sido, Middle East consultant of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP). "The religious minorities have been suffering from attacks by radical Islamist groups – Sunni and Shiite – for many years. Thus, they are hoping for a positive signal, something that will give them a sense of security in their traditional homeland."   

In the run-up to the visit to Iraq, the STP had appealed to Pope Francis to use his talks with Iraqi and Kurdish leaders to advocate for genuine religious freedom and for an improvement in the situation of Christians and other minorities. In principle, the Iraqi constitution of October 2005 "guarantees" freedom of religion. However, no law may be passed that violates the precepts of Islam and its legal system. At the same time, Islam is declared the "state religion". "This discrepancy is an almost insoluble legal problem that Christian, as well as other non-Muslim groups, and women in Iraq have to struggle with," Sido explained. "Sharia law is still a central reference point for new laws – and this doesn't only apply to Muslims, but to everyone." Further, Sido stated that conservative judges and parliamentary majorities of the Shiite and Sunni parties are doing their part to limit the freedoms of the religious minorities.

The visit, which will last from March 5 to 8, will be the Pope's first overseas trip since the outbreak of the Corona pandemic. Francis will meet with representatives of the Iraqi central government as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the schedule also includes a meeting with the highest authority of the country's Shiite majority population, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani. In addition, the pope will meet representatives of all Christian communities – including those in the Nineveh Plains, who were overrun by the so-called Islamic State in 2014. Back then, almost all Christians, Yazidis, and Shiites had been driven out of the region. In Arbil, the capital of Kurdistan, the pope will hold a mass in a stadium.

Meanwhile, the decline in the number of Christians in Iraq continues. Their share of the total population has dropped from more than 3 percent in 2003 to less than 1 percent. Only 57 of the once 500 churches are still open. But even there, the pews are usually empty on Sundays. There is a bit more Christian life in the Kurdish part of the country, because many Christian refugees found shelter there after the Islamist attacks.