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Pope Francis landed in Baghdad on a breezy afternoon Friday to begin an unprecedented visit to the land revered as the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham and the site of the Garden of Eden. But the Christian community waiting to greet Christendom's most prominent figure is one exhausted by decades of conflict.
Whether as random victims of chaos or targets of organized sectarian violence, Iraqi Christians have suffered the same fates as many of their compatriots. But their numbers — whittled down by emigration from a high of 1.4 million before 2000 to a paltry 250,000 now — point to a community in danger of vanishing altogether.
“We’re living on borrowed time,” said Emmanuel Khoshaba, secretary-general of the Assyrian Patriotic Party.
“As a politician I’m supposed to give people hope, but the reality is, if things continue in this way, you won’t see any Christians in Iraq within 10 years.”
The papal visit, church leaders hope, will stanch that exodus.
Francis was greeted at Baghdad International Airport on Friday by a clutch of Iraqi political and religious leaders. He gingerly stepped down from the plane and walked along a red carpet lined with red-jacketed guards to the tune of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
The first pope to visit Iraq is expected to travel across a country once home to a variety of religious and ethnic communities that were later swept away by extremism, with Jews, Yazidis, Shabak and Turkmen all enduring pogroms in Iraq's violent recent history.
Francis' trip comes at a sensitive time. Iraq is grappling with a coronavirus spike that its battered health system is ill-equipped to handle; on Thursday, it recorded more than 5,000 new cases, and critics fear that every stop Francis makes will turn into a superspreading event. Security remains an issue, with thousands of uniformed personnel already flooding the areas the pope will visit.
After meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, Francis called for an end to the country's strife.
“Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world,” he said at the presidential palace in Baghdad, adding that there had been enough violence, extremism, factionalism and lack of forgiveness.
On Saturday, Francis is expected to make his way to Najaf, Shiite Islam’s spiritual capital and home to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s top religious figure. (Their time together is being billed as “the historical meeting between minarets and bells.”) He’ll also visit Ur — thought to be the birthplace of Abraham, the common patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — before heading to Iraq’s northern regions.
Although he comes with a message of fraternity among all religions, much of his itinerary reflects dark episodes for Iraqi Christians.
In Baghdad, Francis will hold Mass in Our Lady of Salvation, the Syriac cathedral where Islamic State gunmen massacred dozens of worshipers in 2010. He’ll pray for the victims of war in Mosul, once Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Iraq, where Christians were forced to convert or face death. He will also visit Qaraqosh, a Christian-dominated town whose residents fled Islamic State’s blitzkrieg in 2014.
Three years after the militant group was routed from the area, many Christians have yet to return.
“Since the ISIS defeat, Christians here have been rethinking their lives as Iraqis, as faithful stewards of Christianity in the country,” said Bishop Francis Kalabat, a spokesman for Cardinal Louis Sako, Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon.
“To have this sense of identity, of belonging to a country, not just as Christians but as Iraqis — this is the spirit of the pope’s trip.”
In a video address to the Iraqi people Thursday, the pontiff said he would come “as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and walk together, also with brothers and sisters of other religious traditions.”
But the massive security presence for his visit reflects the ongoing tensions plaguing Iraq, which is a staging ground for the wider conflicts of the Middle East, including the shadow war between Tehran and Washington. Last month, a rocket attack struck a U.S.-led coalition base in Irbil — Francis is to visit the city Sunday — killing a civilian contractor and wounding a U.S. service member along with other coalition troops. The attack was blamed on Shiite paramilitary groups supported by Iran, and was followed by a U.S. strike on their facilities.
To protect the pope, the Iraqi government has deployed soldiers equipped with aerial reconnaissance and armored vehicles. Troops are prepared for scenarios including pitched street battles as well as indirect rocket fire, said Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir Shammari, deputy commander of Iraq's Joint Operations Command, in an interview with the BBC Arabic news service Thursday.
But the flight of Christians from Iraq, which Francis wants fervently to reverse, began years ago. A trickle of Christian emigration during Saddam Hussein's dictatorial rule swelled in earnest during the blood-soaked chaos after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Then came Islamic State. In mid-2014, its militants rode into Mosul virtually unopposed, before making a scythe-like advance that saw them take over fully one-third of the country. That included the Nineveh plains, the heartland of Iraq’s Christian community.
Faced with conversion, paying a tax on non-Muslims or death, some 140,000 Christians fled, said William Warde, who heads the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, a nongovernmental organization in Baghdad. The militants confiscated their homes, marking them with the Arabic letter nun, for Nasrani, a word meaning Christian that many consider a pejorative.
“We won’t go back even if things are good now,” said Bahnam Jabrita, a 27-year-old from Qaraqosh who fled to the Jordanian capital, Amman, in 2016 and is awaiting permission to migrate to Australia.
His house, he said, had been burned down in the fight against Islamic State. His relatives found the corpses of four militants — along with a machine gun — in a tunnel dug in one of the rooms.
That story is a common one, Warde said.
“Not even 45% of those people have returned. The infrastructure is still destroyed. Houses are still destroyed. One town is 80% ruined,” he said. “The pope’s visit has at least made authorities pave the roads and put streetlights.”
Besides their shattered homes, Christians complain of increasing encroachment by Shiite-dominated paramilitary factions that they say have imposed control over their areas and become little more than extortionist gangs.
Few expect the pope’s visit will change any of that.
“This is our reality. We live in a country without the tenets of a state,” said Khoshaba of the Assyrian Patriotic Party, adding that Christians had little access to weapons and lacked the numbers needed to defend themselves.
“If you're living as a peaceful person in the shadow of an armed conflict in your land, you lose,” he said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.