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For Christians in Iraq, Religion Is Not Only Essential, It’s Everything

Pope Francis meets with with bishops, priests, seminarians, and catechists at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, Iraq, March 5, 2021. (Vatican Media/Handout via Reuters)
Pope Francis points to the way to live, in this time of the pandemic, and always.

As Pope Francis landed in Baghdad after the short flight from Rome, I was reviewing his words from the evening prayer service he held last March, in the rain, to pray us through the coronavirus pandemic. That night, you could hear Italian ambulance sirens go by — this was no escape from the reality we were all facing, something most essential, especially as churches were closed.

At the time, he said:

“The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities.”

He continued: “The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly ‘save’ us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.”

He said a lot more, and it’s worth rereading or rewatching. Obviously, particularly for Catholics, but I suspect there’s something there for everyone. Certainly, a moment for pause as we hit this one-year mark since the shutdowns began.

The pope’s trip to Iraq is the first trip he’s made since COVID-19 arrived in a big way, hitting Italy hard before the number of cases and fatalities in the U.S. began to explode. There were horrific stories of corpses in the hallways as the hospitals in Italy were overrun. As for the Iraq trip, it’s been in the works since the pontificate of John Paul II. And despite the dangers, Pope Francis has had a conviction that the successor of Peter should touch ground there. The heart of the reason for his being there is the Christians there, and they know it and they love him for it. As far as they are concerned, all the interfaith-dialogue aspects of the trip are secondary, important though they might be for the peace of the world and for their lives. The chief message of the journey he’s made there is that they are not forgotten. I frequently find that Americans don’t even realize that there are Christians in Iraq, or that they have been there since the time of the Apostles Thomas and Thaddeus.

Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq offers us perspective. We’ve lived a year of such division, on both the left and the right. Some days it seems like everyone has a grievance. And yet, what do the Christians of Iraq want? On the evening (by Baghdad time) before the pope’s arrival in Iraq, National Review Institute hosted a Zoom briefing live from Erbil with Stephen Rasche, an American who works for the Archdiocese of Erbil. He serves as vice chancellor of the Catholic University of Erbil and as the director of the Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity there. He talked about what Iraqi Christians want out of life there: First, they want to be able to remain. But they “don’t just want to be treated well. They want to be able serve.” They want to be leaven there. To be the light of the world, and to be all that Christians sometimes sing about but don’t always live. The plea of Iraqi Christians, he says, is “Please just give us a chance to show you how we can serve.

“They want homes,” he explains. “They want jobs. They want laws to protect them. They want to the ability to celebrate and live their lives freely and openly. And they hope that this visit from the Holy Father is a starting point for that.”

We talked a bit about what they’ve suffered, including hardships due to Western policies. “These Christians here are forgiving and loving,” Rausche says. “They just want to move forward. They don’t want to dwell in the past. They don’t want to just continue to always be talking about how horribly [they] were treated. They don’t want to always be talking about how awful the genocide was. They want to put all of that behind. They really do.”

Pope Francis has been talking about persecuted Christians since the beginning of his pontificate. He’s repeatedly noted that there are more now than in the time when, in the early Church, they were sent to the lions. His trip to Iraq is for the Christians — as their population there dwindles and their ability to continue to be a presence in their ancestral home is uncertain. It’s also a vaccine against our self-centeredness. Yes, so many here have suffered this year in real ways. But as things open up again, what’s most important to us? Throughout these coronavirus times, we have seemed to concede that religion was not essential. Religion is all that the Christians of Iraq have. Those people whom Rasche serves in Erbil are there because they had to flee their homes. I once heard a woman there declare that she was grateful for ISIS — thank God for ISIS, she said. Because, before ISIS, she didn’t know that what was most important to her was Christ.

Amazing. Can this papal trip provide perspective for us a year after the pandemic storm began? The message to serve, not be served? To love, not descend deeper into all kinds of rancor and even violence? To be not afraid, but to truly value the gifts of freedom we have in the United States still. And remember what is most essential. And may never again add to the plight of Iraq’s oppressed minorities.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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