A member of the Iraqi forces walks past a mural depicting Pope Francis in Baghdad ahead of his visit. Photo by SABAH ARAR/AFP via Getty Images

March 5, 2021   6 mins

When Pope Francis walks through the largely Christian town of Qaraqosh on Sunday he will tread on the very epicenter of where the horror of ISIS hit Iraq just seven years ago. The Pope’s trip, which starts today, is the first ever visit of a sitting pontiff to the country, the first attempt — by John Paul II — having been cancelled in 1999. Eighteen years after the US-led war unleashed multiple horrors on Iraq, the trip is supposed to give the country’s minorities a renewed sense of hope about the future, as well as fostering reconciliation between the country’s disparate communities. Yet while most of Qaraqosh’s residents have returned, elsewhere there remains little optimism among the dwindling number of Christians.

Today church bells ring once more across the plains surrounding Mosul, the country’s second city, but the wreckage of lives cut short, of shattered dreams and livelihoods, is felt all around the crumbling and charred homes of the Christians of Iraq. The terror group attracted the world’s attention when they took the city from a much larger and better equipped Iraqi army in 2014, but the extremist group had been active for several years under the guise of the Islamic State of Iraq; on 31 October 2010, six members had walked into a church in Baghdad and shot dead 50 worshippers, including a number of children. This was by no means unusual for the Islamic State, or Iraq’s religious violence at the time.

Their aim was to drive out the country’s Christians, who before the US-led invasion accounted for around 3-5% of the population, with large communities both in Baghdad and Mosul, although the largest concentration was in the region just outside the second city, the Nineveh Plains.

Most Iraqi Christians are ethnically Assyrian, possessing a discrete and little understood culture that reaches unbroken into pre-Christian antiquity. Their native language is Aramaic, which was once the dominant language of the region after being adopted as a lingua franca by the neo-Assyrian Empire, but which has slowly been edged out by Arabic. Having featured as prominent rules of the region, their ancestors also developed a Christian spiritual empire which spanned the entirety of Asia.

Iraq’s religious patchwork is complicated to outsiders because today Assyrians are divided into a number of sects, among them the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church and Chaldean Catholic Church, the last of which is in communion with Rome. Iraqi Christians of all sects, however, are now more common in the diaspora than Iraq itself, given an unchecked sequence of genocide and persecution which began long before ISIS. There are around 150,000 Assyrians in Sweden, for example, far more than are left in Baghdad.

Following the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks in 1914-23, Assyrians were again targeted in the newly-formed state of Iraq — initially, a British-mandated territory bequeathed to a compliant Arab royal family after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Assyrians mainly remember the Hashemites as the family who led crowds celebrating the Iraqi Army after it had massacred thousands of unarmed Assyrian men, women and children in Simele in 1933. Britain, honouring the Anglo-Iraqi treaty signed in 1930, supplied the ammunition despite the fact that Assyrians, Britain’s allies, represented the largest cohort among the Iraqi Levies enlisted by Britain in the First World War.

It is a tragic, bitter history, but despite this the Assyrians cling on. In the coming days, the Pope, wandering through the ruins of Mosul and Qaraqush (Syriac Aramaic: Bakhdida), will see the last concentrated sites of Assyrian life in Iraq.

The inhabitants of these villages refer to themselves as suraye (or”‘Assyrians” in Aramaic), despite the best efforts of Saddam Hussein. Saddam’s Ba’ath party sought to homogenise Assyrians into “Iraqi Christians” according to a project which began first as a facet of pan-Arabism, but developing into a specifically Iraqi nationalism, with Saddam often depicting himself on billboards riding chariots alongside Babylonian kings. Assyrians who attended the Syriac and Chaldean Catholic Churches and who lived in urban communities were encouraged to take on Arab names and incorporate Arabic into their Church programmes, similar to other programmes of cultural eradication. Their religious leadership figures remained in the country throughout this process.

Yet, the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East remained in exile after being expelled by the Iraqi leadership in 1933, leading his Church from Cyprus, Iran and the US. Rising sectarianism among Christians occurred in tandem with the incentives around easier social mobility, status and prestige afforded to those who rejected an Assyrian identity and were receptive to Arabisation. This was a defining feature of Ba’athist Arabisation policy and resulted in the Assyrian identity being effectively blacklisted.

The Pope’s visit will be aimed at fostering unity, in a country where Christianity has been framed as an essentially powerless and declining force since 2003, but there is a danger that it reinforces this trajectory by legitimising religious leaders who have helped that decline. The irony of modern Iraq is that while many Muslims are keen to form secular states, the country’s Christians have been pushed into religious-led rule.

Almost immediately after American tanks rolled into Iraq in 2003, Assyrians began to be targeted by extremist gangs in Baghdad and other cities. Dozens of churches were bombed, hundreds of people kidnapped or murdered; hundreds of thousands fled.

But Iraq’s minorities were preyed on not just by Sunni and Shia militias. As the centre weakened, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), strengthened by the US occupation, expanded into the Nineveh Plain unilaterally, blocking attempts by local Assyrians to form security forces and disenfranchising them politically. That expansion rendered the Assyrian homeland in the north of Iraq “disputed” by regional and federal authorities, ushering in a full decade of destabilisation which culminated in the emergence of ISIS. Echoing the Arabisation programmes of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdification project used the religious leadership of minority communities to promote a secular, nationalist agenda.

When Mar Meelis, a bishop from the Assyrian Church, arrived in Erbil from Australia in September 2014 and met with Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, he reiterated “his gratitude and appreciation” for the role of the Peshmerga during the ISIS offensive against the Christians of the Nineveh Plain. Yet the Peshmerga had forcibly disarmed and then abandoned these Christians and Yazidis to genocide without a fight only a month prior. Likewise with Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil Bishop Warda, who has become seen as a figurehead for Iraq’s Christians, and was invited to the White House for the signing ceremony of House Res. 390 which provided relief for Iraqi minorities.

The preoccupation of privileging religious leaders as figureheads of non-Muslim communities is itself a relic of the Ottoman millet system. While Arabs and Kurds attempt to develop political structures independent of tribal or religious authority in order to run modern states, their non-Muslim subjects are chained to antiquated systems which prevent them from doing the same. This provides Muslim rulers with powerless minority religious leaders who they ventriloquise, and sometimes even appoint directly.

The US shift in policy during the Trump administration complemented this system, effectively reviving the millet system for the 21st century. Resources once channelled through the UN, which was not without its own major problems, now went through USAID and approved “faith-based groups”.

When it comes to the Middle East, much is made of sectarianism among Muslim groups, but little is mentioned about the sectarianism encouraged within minority communities, incentivised through sect-based policy solutions (what in the West would be called “hard multiculturalism”). Beyond Arab and Kurdish elites creating minority political parties with a sectarian slant to break up any prospect of a unified minority agenda, there are stories of local priests punishing volunteers for distributing Western aid to Christians of different sects, despite being neighbours. One US contact in Iraq candidly remarked that the US had recently provisioned millions of dollars for various infrastructure projects and decided to simply “give it to Bishop Warda”.

In Iraq the most important issue is security. When ISIS rampaged through Mosul and the Nineveh Plains tens of thousands of Assyrians  fled, yet most of those refugees will not return to those villages where they do not feel safe. In the Peshmerga-controlled village of Telskuf, only 30% of people have returned post-ISIS, and in Telkaif, run by Iraqi Arab militias, only 7% have come back. In contrast  Qaraqush has welcome the return of some 70% of its people, because here the local community is protected by the Assyrian-led Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) — which is also contributing to the Pope’s own security. When it comes to security, people vote with their feet, and yet church leaders say no to so-called “Christian militias”.

Unsurprisingly Assyrians are deeply pessimistic, and as one displaced man told a reporter ahead of the visit, “We’re expecting the Pope. But we’re not expecting much from his visit.” Far from renewing hopes, Pope Francis’s visit represents something of an emblem of the political situation Christian Assyrians find themselves locked into in Iraq: pitifully hanging onto 20th century dreams of salvation from outside forces who have even less at stake in fulfilling them. Local religious leaders will treat the visit as a vindication of their own faith and position, while the lay folk stay huddled around fast-depleting kerosene heaters for warmth in ever-dwindling numbers.

As for the Americans? For all of the recent bluster and rhetoric around helping these stricken people to the tune of $400m, the US is still spending more on building a new $600m consulate near Erbil in 2017, to go along with their existing $750m consulate in Baghdad.

Until these communities can be supported to strengthen their position, they will remain sub-citizens. Arabs and Kurds enjoy the benefits of expanding their educational and professional networks secure in their own identities, but Assyrians are primarily understood through one single framework — their ability to practise a faith shared by those looking on in the West. Current measures undertaken now may provide some short-term gloss and flatter efforts, but the Catholic Church (and all Churches in the region) are ultimately weakened in the long term unless something drastic changes — because current trends suggest that there will soon be more Christmas trees than Christians in Iraq.

The Pope will greet a broken community fighting for its existence when he arrives in Iraq. The least that he and the machinery around him can do is recognise the ones who are defending it best — the beleaguered and forgotten people themselves.

Views expressed belong to the author and do not reflect the position of Minority Rights Group International

Max J. Joseph is an artist and writer who has published widely on the Middle East. He is currently the Iraq Programme Coordinator for Minority Rights Group International