Christians in Iraq continue to fight for a place in society
In depth: Six months after Pope Francis’ visit, Iraqi Christians say nothing has changed. But despite the emptying of churches and sectarian violence, some remain hopeful of political progress.
“We have seen many visits by heads of state and delegations in recent years. Each time it’s a lot of promises, and each time it stops there, without anything concrete afterwards ”.
Anan smiles as she talks, busy serving Iraqi tea and candy in her living room in a residential area of Baghdad. When asked if there had been any changes for Iraqi Christians since Pope Francis visited last March, she replied that she did not know.
“We are a minority here. And the majority still do not want to live in peace with us ”.
The 50-year-old Baghdad resident lives with her sister and speaks fluent English and French in addition to Arabic. Any optimism that remains to her lies in her full-time commitment to volunteering and helping minors in her local parish, the Church of Sayidat Al Najat (Our Lady of Salvation) in the Karrada district.
“The Iraqi Christian community has lost nearly 75% of its members over the past 20 years, most of them forced into exile by war and sectarian violence”
In 2010, a massacre by suicide bombers linked to Al Qaeda at the church killed 58 people. It was one of the deadliest incidents targeting the Christian minority community after the 2003 American invasion.
When Pope Francis visited Iraq six months ago, Anan said she was happy, “but if you ask me how I see the future of Iraq today, I will say … vague,” said -she.
In the weeks following the pontiff’s historic journey, various political forces tried to ride the media wave. The day after the Pope’s departure, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi launched an invitation to national dialogue, but this has effectively gone unheeded.
For his part, the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr boldly announced his party’s intention to provide legal and economic assistance to Christians who wanted to return to Iraq and recover the property expropriated when they left the country.
“Just words, always words,” says Father Paolis Zarra, priest of Sayidat al-Najat, in central Baghdad. “I continue to receive farewell visits from devotees who are leaving the country. My parish continues to empty “.
The Iraqi Christian community has lost nearly 75% of its members over the past 20 years, most of them forced into exile by war and sectarian violence.
In the 1987 Iraqi census, there were approximately 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Today, that number is only 300,000, in a country considered to be the cradle of Christianity and the birthplace of the prophet Abraham.
“What we need is a new government,” exclaims Louis, deacon at Sayidat al Najat church and commercial attaché at the French embassy in Baghdad. “Why should Christians come back to a land that does not offer them security and justice? “.
Louis and his son were at Sayidat al Najat Church when the 2010 terrorist attack took place during mass.
Even today, he does not feel secure in expressing his faith in the capital, let alone in his hometown of Qaraqosh in the plains of Nineveh. “Forgiveness has always been our philosophy, and it has caused us to lose our land and property,” says Anan.
“Why should Christians come back to a land that does not offer them security and justice?
Facing the unknown
At the end of August, the Iraqi capital hosted the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, a meeting that brought together leaders from neighboring countries and other regional powers such as Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and the Arab Emirates. united (UAE).
Aimed at resolving differences and bringing stability to the region, the summit was proposed almost a year ago by French President Emmanuel Macron, who was also present at the conference.
For Anan as for Louis, the visit of the French president was an encouraging sign for Iraq. “France takes care of humanity, beyond any religious identity,” says Anan, a refugee in France for six months in 2015. “Even after the terrorist attack in our church, they were among the first to bring their support, ”she recalls.
“Nonetheless… We have seen so many regional meetings in recent months: Egypt and Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Each time, the negotiations are supposed to improve stability. Everyone makes a lot of promises to us but nothing comes out of them, ”says Anan.
But even though their future looks bleak, Anan and Louis both say they will vote next month in the election scheduled for October 10.
“It is our right, even Pope Francis told us in March not to give up our rights,” they both say. According to recent polls, most Iraqis do not intend to go to the polls – some have not even registered their biometric cards to vote.
Louis takes a different approach, and even knows who he will vote for. “It will be a new party, born from the protest movement of October 2019,” he explains.
Sofia Nitti is an Italian video journalist based in Baghdad, Iraq.
Follow her on Twitter: @SofiaNitti