The first trip of a Pope to Iraq would be a historic first, and many expect Pope Francis to go next year.
The Argentine Pontiff himself explicitly expressed in June his desire to visit the war-torn nation in 2020. Until this point, for safety concerns, such a visit had been considered not feasible.
Iraqi Christians have emigrated in droves after massive persecution of Christians and religious minorities by the Islamic State. While many would love to return to their homeland, and international organizations, such as the pontifical foundation, Aid to the Church in Need, make great efforts to rebuild the Nineveh Plain, many Iraqis lack trust that they can safely re-establish themselves there, and instead await welcome in neighboring lands, and in countries afar, such as Australia, Canada and the United States. Various Iraqi refugees expressed this to ZENIT in Jordan.
In an exclusive interview with ZENIT in the Middle East, Auxiliary Bishop of Chaldean Patriarchate of Babylon, in Baghdad, Iraq, Bishop Robert Saeed Jarjis, discussed all these aspects and more.
“There is a faith in crisis today, because what happened has wounded the heart not only of Christians,” the Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad tells ZENIT, referring also to the Yazidis, another Iraqi minority. “There are whole villages that still need to be rebuilt, where water is not even available, there is no work,” he says, asking how one without these elements can stay in such a place…
However, at the same time, he expressed the great joy of all Iraqis of different faiths and demographics at the prospect of the first Pope visiting their country.
Around Christmas of 2018, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, visited Iraq, but at the time, upon his return to Rome, suggested the conditions were not yet in place for the Pope to visit. However, since, Francis has expressed his wish to go in 2020.
“An insistent thought accompanies me thinking of Iraq – where I wish to go next year – that it may look ahead through the peaceful and shared participation in the construction of the common good of all the religious components of society, and that it may not fall into the tensions which come from the never-ending conflicts of regional powers,” he said to the Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches in the Vatican.
Zenit Senior Vatican correspondent Deborah Castellano Lubov was recently in Amman, Jordan to speak at and attend the international conference “Media and their role in defending the truth”, reflecting on dialogue between religions and people in the Middle East. It was promoted by the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the East, the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Jordan, with the collaboration of the Platform for Dialogue and Cooperation between Religious Leaders and Institutions of the Arab World” and the Jordanian Office of Tourism, which took place in late June 2019.
Pope Francis visited Jordan during his visit to the Holy Land in 2014, visiting the Baptism site of Jesus along the Jordan River. Francis did so in the footsteps of Benedict XVI (2009) and St. John Paul II (2000). Jordan, with a large Islamic majority, where Catholics are less than 1% of the population, has a reputation as a peaceful and tolerant country in the Middle East.
The Holy Father also welcomed the invitation of the Church and State in the United Arab Emirates to visit Abu Dhabi for an interfaith conference, Feb. 3-5, 2019, which marked the first visit of a Pope to the Arabian Peninsula. During the encounter, he signed a joint “Document on Human Fraternity: For World Peace and Living Together” with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Al Tayyeb.
Iraq, however, has had a different experience than Jordan and the Emirates, full of war, persecution and suffering, and still with serious issues, including discrimination against Christians in day to day life.
In this interview with ZENIT, Bishop Jarjis dives into the current situation in Iraq, how the Christians are and focuses on the much anticipated–even if not confirmed yet by the Vatican–first trip of a Pope to Iraq, where, in the city of Ur, lies the historical roots of the three great monotheistic world religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
He also touches on emigration, noting an “Iraqi, Christian or not, does not emigrate because he likes to be uprooted from his own land,” since an “Iraqi loves his country and his culture.” “Emigration, which forces us to cut our roots against our own will,” he explains, “is the consequence of other serious problems affecting Iraq.”
Below is the exclusive Zenit interview with Bishop Jarjis, done in Amman:
ZENIT: Your Excellency, on June 10, receiving an audience with the ROACO Assembly, Pope Francis clearly expressed his willingness to visit Iraq in 2020. How did the Iraqis accept this news? What were the reactions?
Bishop Jarjis (Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad): First of all, great joy, and not only from Christians, but from all the different groups of the Iraqi people. The first thing the President of the Republic, Barham Salih, did was to contact Cardinal Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, to receive all the information relating to the news and to know how to handle such an event, the visit of a Pope. What should you do? How do you proceed? The official invitations? What protocol follows, or is necessary?
ZENIT: So, a joy for all Iraqis …
Bishop Jarjis: Of course, for Christians, Muslims, Shiites and Sunnis, and all others, since it would be the first trip of a Pope to Iraq. And being Iraq, the place where they sink their historical roots – precisely in Ur, with Abraham – the three great monotheisms of the world, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, would be an extremely significant journey, it would be important to welcome a Pope to Iraq!
ZENIT: What do Christians expect from the Pope’s visit to Iraq?
Bishop Jarjis: I would say support for Iraqi Christian communities, which need so much support. I speak of support of all kinds, but above all, moral support, after all the attacks they have suffered and the crises they have gone through, economic, social … They have suffered so much.
ZENIT: With the defeat of the Islamic State, silence seems to have fallen on Iraq by the international media …
Bishop Jarjis: Therefore, it would be important to welcome the Pope to Iraq, to attract the world’s attention to this country again. As long as there was Daesh to fight, of course the attention was not missed. But then the media turned to something else, rather than focusing on the unsolved problems of Iraq. But the suffering is not over! Above all, Christian communities still have many challenges to face. There has been no reconstruction yet. But now media attention is focused on other countries in the region, such as tensions between the US and Iran. Today, Iraq is in the background in the attention of the international press, and the Pope’s trip would be the opportune occasion to change things. Already expressing the desire to visit Iraq, Pope Francis has brought back so much attention on us! Imagine the effect of a journey, when the desire will materialize! It would be a great gift, a great grace!
ZENIT: Pope Francis would be the first Pope to visit Iraq, but not the first Pope to want to travel to Iraq. Is this correct?
Bishop Jarjis: Yes, even St. John Paul II wanted to become a pilgrim in Ur, in Iraq, during the Jubilee of 2000. But in that year, there were other more urgent challenges to face. Therefore, Pope John Paul II made a “symbolic” pilgrimage to Ur from the Vatican, in Paul VI Hall. However, the desire to visit Iraq had long been in the hearts of the Popes, perhaps even before John Paul II. Now let’s just hope it will happen very soon!
ZENIT: In the meantime, many historical events have occurred in Iraq. How would you describe the situation of Christians in Iraq today? We know that many institutions, such as Aid to the Church in Need, are committed to promoting the return of those emigrated to Iraq …
Bishop Jarjis: First of all, the Christian community is an integral part of the Iraqi people. Therefore, there are two orders of challenges that are facing today. The first are the challenges that touch and make all Iraqis suffer. Maybe I will make you laugh a little, if I say that the first challenge right now is the sun, the heat, which in summer reaches almost 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). Yet this is truly a challenge, the result of how the environment has been treated in the past. All Iraqis suffer from environmental neglect in recent years.
ZENIT: And the particular challenges of Iraqi Christians?
Bishop Jarjis: There are Christian villages in the Nineveh Plain that have not yet been rebuilt. So, I say that the will, the Pope’s desire to visit Iraq will awaken the world’s attention on Iraq and on the Christians of this country that defeated the Daesh, they have to face many other challenges still. For young Christians – but the same applies to everyone else too – work is a challenge. But those who could invest in some economic activity, and thus create jobs, generally do not, because of the media that always spread negative news about Iraq. Today in Iraq it is possible to invest in economic activities, obviously carefully, wisely. Thus, the young, whether Christian or not, would have any hope of finding a job. Instead, everyone now aspires to a state job, but the government cannot provide jobs for everyone!
Then Christians, always talking about work, sometimes suffer from treatment different from others, even if not openly. If in an office there is to identify an employee for a higher-level job, such as a director, there are so many recommendations of the parties, even if perhaps the person in question will not be able to carry out that task. Christians, on the other hand, do not have anyone who recommends them, they feel isolated, even though they often have important qualifications and training. They work honestly, without creating problems … why do they never make a career? This would mean a more prestigious position, higher salaries, more benefits …
ZENIT: Is there still a real risk of being persecuted, for a Christian who eventually returned to Iraq after escaping?
Bishop Jarjis: Officially persecuted no, this word would be a little too harsh, excessive. Certainly, however, there is a faith in crisis today, because what happened has wounded the heart not only of Christians. I am also thinking of the Yazidis, another Iraqi minority. Then, as I said, there are whole villages that still need to be rebuilt, where water is not even available, there is no work … How can you live in a certain place if you don’t have a job? Certainly not enough to have a home. These are practical questions, of course, talking about persecution is not possible, but this is the situation.
ZENIT: Does the emigration of Iraqi Christians abroad pose risks to the survival of the Christian churches in Iraq? And how could it be stopped?
Bishop Jarjis: We need to face it wisely, to get some practical results, without forgetting that among the causes we must also mention the fact that so many Christians have been forced out of their homes. First of all, I would say that we need to start a work of reconstruction of mutual trust between the different ethnic and religious identities that make up the Iraqi people. Emigration abroad can be stopped. If an Iraqi chooses to cut off the roots of his land, he does so because of serious problems. The Iraqi, Christian or not, does not emigrate because he likes to be uprooted from his own land, no! The Iraqi loves his country and his culture. Emigration, which forces us to cut our roots against our own will, is the consequence of other serious problems affecting Iraq. And the first, I repeat, is work, the means by which the person realizes himself. Let’s think of a young jobless person who wants to get married, how does he do it?
ZENIT: What help could Iraqis emigrated abroad give to their country’s growth?
Bishop Jarjis: I am thinking of the creation of groups, outside Iraq, among the Iraqi emigrants, to transplant them to Iraq so that they in turn constitute other small groups by transmitting to them the skills and knowledge they have acquired abroad. It is true that such work, if begun today will produce results in five, ten years, but if today we do not even begin then emigration will never stop.
ZENIT: When you talk about wounded trust, what do you mean?
Bishop Jarjis: All the parts that make up the Iraqi people are wounded, all of them! But the reconstruction of this trust has not yet begun in an “organized” way. There are voices that talk about rebuilding mutual trust, peaceful coexistence, but to really understand how to do it, great wisdom is needed.
ZENIT: The Document on Human Fraternity signed by Pope Francis and the Great Imam Al Tayyeb in Abu Dhabi speaks a lot about “citizenship”, a key issue in Iraq. What impact is this document having on Iraq? Was it widespread, read, discussed?
Bishop Jarjis: The Abu Dhabi document unfortunately was not widespread enough and taken seriously. The Catholic Church has tried to spread it and publish it, I speak especially of the work of Cardinal Patriarch Sako to make it known. But the Christian press in Iraq is still not strong enough and not widespread.
ZENIT: But is it free?
Bishop Jarjis: Quite free, yes, but sometimes wisdom must be exercised. The truth must be told, but not in all ways and moments. And here it takes wisdom to understand. Going back to the Abu Dhabi document, I think the Middle East will really understand it over time, slowly, but it is necessary for the media to pay attention to it.
ZENIT: The document is signed by an authority of Sunni Islam, but in Iraq, Shiites are the majority …
Bishop Jarjis: The Shiites claim to have brothers in both religion and creation; all, that is, according to the Shiites, we are brothers in creation. And this statement recalls the title of the Abu Dhabi document. So, since a high percentage of Shiites live in Iraq, this document should have a very strong effect on Iraq, if only we wanted to apply it, put it into practice!
ZENIT: During a papal trip to Iraq, what would you say are the places or appointments that could not be missed in the program?
Bishop Jarjis: In my opinion, the desire of Pope Francis will be the same as that of Saint John Paul II to begin the journey to Iraq from Ur, which is a biblical place, a place that unites Jews, Christians and Muslims. It would be a way to send the message that if everyone’s past is to Ur, then the present and the future can also be there. Interreligious dialogue must focus on what unites! Just see what makes us different! And Ur is a place whose meaning unites.
ZENIT: And what other stops, in addition to Ur, would you consider important?
Bishop Jarjis: Surely Baghdad, to meet the representatives of the highest institutions of the state. Then certainly Kurdistan, to the north, with the city of Erbil, as a sign of closeness to the Christians of the region, because since the Christians were driven from their villages they live mainly in Erbil. So, it would be great if the Pope went there too, and I think it’s not just my idea, but patriarch Sako also gave this indication. With regard to the issues in evidence, I certainly foresee the peaceful coexistence in Iraq, the encouragement to all the components of the Iraqi people on this road and the Abu Dhabi document as an aid along the way.
ZENIT: Thank you, Your Excellency.