Few have returned — estimates suggest there are fewer than 300,000 Christians still in Iraq and many of those remain displaced from their homes. Those who did go back to their towns found homes and churches destroyed. Many feel intimidated by Shiite militias controlling some areas.
There are practical struggles, as well. Many Iraqi Christians cannot find work and blame discriminatory practices in the public sector, Iraq’s largest employer. Since 2003, public jobs have been mostly controlled by majority Shiite political elites, leaving Christians feeling marginalized.
Francis called for Iraqi authorities to grant all religious communities “recognition, respect, rights and protection,” including the right to participate in public life “as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities.”
For the pope, who has often traveled to places where Christians are a persecuted minority, Iraq’s beleaguered Christians are the epitome of the “martyred church” that he has admired ever since he was a young Jesuit seeking to be a missionary in Asia.
In Iraq, Francis seeks to not only honor its martyrs but deliver a message of reconciliation and fraternity. It is in keeping with his long-standing effort to improve relations with the Muslim world that have accelerated in recent years with his friendship with a leading Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb. And it will reach a new high with his meeting Saturday with Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a figure revered in Iraq and beyond.
Later Friday, Francis prayed at the Baghdad church that was the site of one of the worst massacres of Christians, the 2010 attack by Islamic militants that left 58 people dead. On Sunday, he will honor the dead in a Mosul square surrounded by shells of destroyed churches and meet with the small Christian community that returned to Qaraqosh, where he will bless their church that was used as a firing range by IS.
The visit comes as Iraq is seeing a new spike in coronavirus infections, with most new cases traced to the highly contagious variant first identified in Britain. The 84-year-old Francis, the Vatican delegation and traveling media have been vaccinated; most Iraqis have not, raising questions about the potential for the trip to fuel infections.
The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have downplayed the threat of the virus and insisted that social distancing, crowd control and other health care measures will be enforced. The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said this week the important thing is for Iraqis to know that the pope came to Iraq as an “act of love.”
The Vatican and the pope have frequently insisted on the need to preserve Iraq’s ancient Christian communities and create the security, economic and social conditions for those who have left to return.
But that hasn’t necessarily translated into reality.
“I am the only priest in Mosul. Every Sunday I hold mass at 9 a.m., and only around 70 people attend,” said the Rev. Raed Adil Kelo, parish priest of the Church of the Annunciation in the onetime de-facto IS capital.
Before 2003, Mosul’s Christian population was 50,000, he said. It had already dwindled to 2,000 before IS overran northern Iraq.
He doesn’t expect more to return, but he said Francis’ visit would have immeasurable importance for those who stayed.
“This visit will bring peace to Iraq” he said.
This article originally appeared here.