A recent four-day visit by Pope Francis to Iraq was bound to attract attention, given that he is the Pope and Iraq is, well, Iraq. Some of the media coverage, however, demonstrated just how little the press “gets religion.” In one especially funny and now-deleted example, CNN referred to the Vatican as the “Holly Sea,” instead of the “Holy See.”
Still, this visit was full of meetings that mattered, such as the Pope’s meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leader of the Shiites in Iraq. This meeting took place in Najaf in what is called the “Plain of Ur” (yes, that Ur, the one where Abraham came from). In a statement issued after the meeting, the Ayatollah affirmed “his concern that Christian citizens [of Iraq] should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights.”
That would be a welcome development given the suffering Iraqi Christians have faced at the hands of their Muslim neighbors. About two-thirds of Iraqis identify as Shia Muslims so, if their leader can persuade them that Christians belong and deserve the same rights they have, it could make a significant difference.
The Pope’s visit also focused much-needed attention on the plight of one of the oldest and most-vulnerable Christian communities in the world. The antiquity of this Christian community is apparent in a name: “Chaldean Catholic Church” (yes, that “Chaldean,” as in “Ur of the Chaldeans,” from the book of Genesis.
Around 70-80 percent of all Iraqi Christians belong to this particular group, which traces its origin to the Apostle Bartholomew. Its distinctive historical identity is well-attested all the way back to the early-to-mid third century, and its liturgy is conducted in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. These Christians begin their remembrance of Lent with what is called the “Fast of Nineveh,” which commemorates the repentance and fast of that ancient city as told in the Book of Jonah.
For these Christians, the biblical account is more than familiar. It’s something akin to family lore. Plus, in addition to their close connections with ancient history, they model faithfulness and perseverance.
Iraq, like so much of the Middle East, is mostly Islamic. Since the early 7th century, this Christian community has experienced oppression at the hands of Muslim rulers. The severity and nature of this oppression varied, converting to Islam would have made their lives much easier. But they didn’t.
Despite their oppression, these Christians have made significant contributions to their society. They were the ones who translated Greek texts on science, math, and philosophy into Arabic. Thus, in a way, Chaldean Christians made Islam’s often-heralded contributions in these areas possible.
Recent events in the region have nearly accomplished what 14 centuries of Islamic oppression couldn’t. Iraq’s Christians are, as the Archbishop of Irbil put it in 2019, “perilously close to extinction.” At the time, he was specifically referring to the threat of ISIS, but the dispersion of Iraqi and other Middle Eastern Christians had begun long before and with them went “the culture and wealth which flowed from” the Christian presence.
Hopefully, the Grand Ayatollah’s statement will make a difference. Meanwhile, the community’s way of life is providing a compelling witness of the power of the Gospel. A mother who had lost her son to ISIS told Pope Francis, “Our strength undoubtedly comes from our faith in the Resurrection, a source of hope. My faith tells me that my children are in the arms of Jesus Christ our Lord. And we, the survivors, try to forgive the aggressor, because our Master Jesus has forgiven his executioners. By imitating him in our sufferings, we testify that love is stronger than everything.”
Her words left Pope Francis, as he put it, “speechless.” Not only should we pray for our brothers and sisters in Iraq; we should watch them and learn what we can about faithful perseverance and reliance on the risen Christ. We may be put to the test ourselves, soon enough.