Published on March 4, 2021
“When America launched a war against Iraq, did the people here think they came to free us?” a friend asked me. Yes, I replied.
“That’s not what we thought, we believed America came to conquer and occupy us.”
My friend is not apologizing for Saddam Hussein but is speaking as an Iraqi Christian woman who was forced to leave after the U.S. invasion. Since then, Iraqi Christians have been almost eradicated from their country—the land of their heritage.
America broke the dam. In toppling the regime of Hussein, it also released the torrent, including ISIS, that engulfed Iraqi Christians.
Pope Francis, who has not stopped seeking those driven to the margins of society since the day he became the occupant of St. Peter’s Chair, understands the existential peril of Christians in the Middle East and in Iraq especially. He is going to them this week as an advocate, a sign of hope. At the same time, he is intent on opening dialogue and seeking common cause, as he did with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in Abu Dhabi in 2019.
During his four-day journey to Iraq he will travel to Najaf, Ur, Qaraqosh and Erbil. He will visit ancient sites and old cities still inhabited in the cradle of civilization—Mesopotamia, a blessed, fruitful land now ravaged by war. And he will visit the city of my family, my ancestors: Mosul. There he will offer prayers for the victims of the war.
I have listened to the uprooted and dislocated, interviewing many of them after they arrived in the United States. One refugee told me of a relative who lived in Mosul and had a good relationship with his Muslim neighbor. But then ISIS took over the city and tried to expel all the Christians. To those who stayed behind, they gave an ultimatum: death or conversion. This man’s neighbor, “who was like a brother,” turned on him and his family. With threats, he drove them out. Then he appropriated their house.
Refugees have told me in confidence that other Iraqi Christians were kidnapped and held for ransom, and some were killed even though their kidnappers received the ransom money. Many were extorted, their houses and properties commandeered by locals.
When they fled, hoping in time to return, squatters seized their homes. And when they did return, they were told they had no claim. Deeds and documents were forged. They were plundered and left without recourse. Their goods, their life’s work, their lives themselves—all were stolen. (For more background, read America chief correspondent Kevin Clarke’s reporting from Iraq in 2019.)
The husband of one of my friends did not want to leave his home and country even after the trauma of a kidnapping. But he was threatened further. “Leave or we’ll kill you” read a note left on his windshield a few days after his kidnappers returned him. “This is not your land, this is not your country, you are kuffar [infidels],” countless Christians were told.
In his recent encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis writes about this kind of racism: “Every brother and sister in need, when abandoned or ignored by the society in which [they] live, becomes an existential foreigner, even though born in the same country. They may be citizens with full rights, yet they are treated like foreigners in their own country. Racism is a virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing, goes into hiding, and lurks in waiting.”
Christians are called to love our enemies. But this is difficult when they hold a gun to your head. The Iraqi Christians who have been uprooted and dislocated bleed bitterness.
We are anesthetized in the United States to the wars we still fight but do not see on our screens anymore. We are anesthetized to Iraq and the suffering of its Christian population. It is no wonder that Iraqi Christians feel abandoned. Pope Francis’ visit is, at least to some, answered prayer.
The near-elimination of Christians in Iraq is a crime against all people, against the land, against the nation. But not everyone has given up. A priest I know who shepherded a local Chaldean Catholic parish is now a bishop in Iraq. Bishop Felix (Saeed) Dawood al-Shabi believes—as I do—that Iraqi Christian identity and roots should be defended, strengthened, re-established. He returned to Iraq after a period here in the United States; he returned for the people, their land, their civilizational history and for the church in Iraq.
I have also seen the indefatigable work by Bashar Matti Warda, the archbishop of Erbil, who is making every effort to awaken the Western church to the suffering of our Iraqi brothers and sisters. And the church in Erbil took care not only of Christians during the wars but of displaced Muslims as well, opening their hearts to all those in need.
The bishops and priests in Iraq know they cannot force people to stay, but their goal is to stand up for the right to stay—the right of people to live in the land of their ancestors, not only for their benefit but for the benefit to all of Iraq. Still, some of the refugees I spoke with in the United States accuse the priests who urge their parishioners to stay in Iraq of merely seeking job security.
In anticipation of Pope Francis’ visit, NPR conducted interviews with Muslims and Christians in Iraq. It was encouraging to hear from Muslims who care about the Christian community, who care about people of different faiths living together in peace and who are upset about the persecution of their fellow citizens. At the same time, I cannot help but think if there are Muslims in Iraq who feel this way, they must be afraid to advocate for their Christian neighbors; otherwise this horror would not have happened.
Just as Pope Francis’ meeting with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-tayyeb in Abu Dhabi in 2019 opened dialogue between people of both faiths, so too I hope this journey to Iraq will be the beginning of healing and religious harmony. The dam is still broken, but some take the rebuilding seriously. May the message of Pope Francis give rise to fraternity and social friendship for the people of Iraq.
Luma Simms is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, in Washington, D.C., and an Iraqi Christian immigrant.