Breakthrough for Persecuted Believers in Iraq
Pope Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, to urge Muslims to embrace Iraq’s persecuted Christians.
- Proverbs 31:8-9 Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.
- Matthew 5:9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
- James 3:18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
On Saturday 6 March 2021, in a historic visit, Pope Francis met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most senior leaders in Shia Islam, in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf to bring a message of peaceful coexistence, and urging Muslims to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority.
The 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy, led by a bullet-proof vehicle, had pulled up for the meeting along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in the world for Shia Muslims. He then walked the few metres to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the Shia leader has rented for decades.
After the meeting, al-Sistani office released a statement that said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians and that the Shia leader “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights”.
The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani and the Shia people for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history. He said al-Sistani’s message of peace affirmed “the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people”.
For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement – and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shia armed groups against their community.
The visit was being carried live on Iraqi television, and residents cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.
CHRISTIANITY IN IRAQ
According to Pew Research Center, Iraq is 98% Muslim and two distinct traditions, Shia and Sunni Islam: 50-55% Shia and 40-45% Sunni. The overall percentage of Muslims has increased since the Iraqi Civil War (2014–2017) due to the migration of Christian and Yezidi refugees into neighboring countries
In 2003, before the US invasion of Iraq, there were an estimated 1.2 million Christians living there. Today, that number is less than 250,000 — an eighty percent drop in less than two decades.
If this trend continues, a religious minority that has been in Iraq for centuries will be gone entirely.
Christianity in the Middle East is at a tipping point and is often described as an unfolding tragedy. The visit by Pope Francis, the first prominent Western Christian leader to do so, will no doubt provide a huge source of encouragement to local believers from all denominations.
One of the previous Christian leaders from the West to visit Iraq was Rev.Franklin Graham in April 2017. The day before Easter Sunday, Graham visited a church that had been burned and destroyed by ISIS and met with the pastor. What he found in the rubble was incredible.
“[In] the ashes and debris, we discovered one of our Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes that had been given to a child there at some point,” he said. “I couldn’t help but wonder where the child who received this box is today.”
The evangelist also discovered the charred pages from a Bible: “I picked up a section that contained John 20:27 – ‘Then he [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe’,” Graham reflected. “He’s still saying that to the world today-this Easter Sunday-Believe!”
A recent article in Reuters describes the plight of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic community and the incredible pressure that they have been under since the fall of Saddam. This not only includes ISIS’s reign of terror, but day-to-day discrimination against Christians that is causing so many to seek to leave the country.
There are 14 officially recognised Christian sects in Iraq. Most live in Baghdad, the plains of northern Nineveh province and Iraq’s self-run Kurdistan region.
These are the most prominent Christian denominations in Iraq:
Chaldeans are the most numerous of Iraq’s Christians, up to 80% of the group. The Chaldean Church is Eastern Rite affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church but allowed to keep its traditions and rituals. It originated from the Church of the East in Mesopotamia, which emerged in the early centuries after Jesus Christ.
The church is based in Baghdad and headed by Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako. Most Chaldeans live in Iraq, the United States, Iran and Lebanon. They speak a version of Aramaic, a Semitic language spoken at the time of Jesus. There are 110 Chaldean churches across Iraq.
Syriacs make up about 10% of Iraqi Christians. They include Catholics, which are the majority, and Orthodox. The northern towns of Qaraqosh, Bashiqa and Bartella house the biggest Syriac community in the country.
The main Syriac Catholic church is based in Lebanon while the Orthodox church is based in Syria. There are 82 Syriac churches in Iraq, both Catholic and Orthodox.
Assyrians mainly following the Assyrian Church of the East comprise up to around 5% of Christians in Iraq. Some fled to Iraq following the massacres by the Ottoman army during World War One.
Assyrians refer to the killing of their people in 1915 as a genocide, which took place around the same time as the massacre of Armenians. There are 21 Assyrian churches in Iraq, 17 of them in Baghdad.
Ethnic Assyrians, a larger group that includes members of other Christian churches in the region, are originally from areas of former Mesopotamia including Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
About 3% of Iraqi Christians are Armenian. After the Armenian genocide in 1915-1923 by the Ottoman Empire, many of them fled to Iraq. They speak Armenian. There are 19 Armenian churches in Iraq, both Orthodox and Catholic.
ARABS, SMALLER GROUPS
Arab Christians make up about 2% of the Iraqi Christian population.
There are also three Greek Orthodox and four Coptic Orthodox churches in Baghdad and 57 Roman Catholic churches across the country, as well as a small number of Protestants.
Sources: The Iraqi Christian Foundation; Freedom of Belief for Minorities in Iraq, by Saad Salloum, an academic specialised in Iraqi minorities and founder of the Institute for the Study of Religious Diversity; Reuters interview with Salloum; Iraq 2019 International Religious Freedom Report, U.S. State Department.