Iraq's Christians continue to fight for a place in society

Crucifixes and icons are seen at the heavily damaged Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh on April 9, 2017, as Christians mark the first Palm Sunday event since its recapture from IS.
4 min read
14 September, 2021
In-depth: Six months after Pope Francis' visit, Iraqi Christians say nothing has changed. But despite emptying churches and sectarian violence, some remain hopeful for political progress.

“We’ve seen many visits from heads of state and delegations in the last years. Each time it’s a lot of promises, and each time it ends there, without anything concrete after”.

Anan smiles while she speaks, busy serving tea and Iraqi sweets in her living room in a residential neighbourhood of Baghdad. Asked if there have been any changes for Iraqi Christians since Pope Francis’ visit in March earlier this year, she says she doesn’t know.

“We are a minority here. And the majority still does not want to live peacefully with us”.

The 50-year-old Baghdad resident lives with her sister and speaks English and French fluently in addition to Arabic. Any optimism she has left lies in her full-time engagement in volunteer activities and assistance with minors in her local parish, the Church of Sayidat Al Najat (Our Lady of Salvation) in the district of Karrada.

"The Iraqi Christian community has lost nearly 75% of its members in the last 20 years, with most driven into exile by war and sectarian violence"

In 2010, a massacre carried out by Al-Qaeda-linked suicide bombers at the church killed 58 people. It was one of the deadliest incidents targeting the minority Christian community following the 2003 US invasion.

When Pope Francis visited Iraq six months ago, Anan says she was happy, “but if you ask me how I see the future in Iraq today I will say... vague”, she says.

In the weeks that followed the pontiff’s historic journey, various political forces tried to ride the media wave. The day after the Pope’s departure, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi launched an invitation for national dialogue, but it effectively remained a dead letter.

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For his part, the Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr boldly announced his party's intention to legally and economically help Christians who wanted to return to Iraq and to regain the possessions that were expropriated when they left the country.

“Just words, always words,” says Father Paolis Zarra, the priest of Sayidat al-Najat, in the centre of Baghdad. “I continue to receive farewell visits from the faithful who leave the country. My parish continues to empty".

The Iraqi Christian community has lost nearly 75% of its members in the last 20 years, with most driven into exile by war and sectarian violence.

In the 1987 Iraqi census, there were around 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Today, that number has dwindled to no more than 300,000, in a country considered a cradle of Christianity and the birthplace of the prophet Abraham.

An Iraqi flag flies next to a large crucifix in the nearly deserted predominantly Christian Iraqi town of Qaraqosh on April 16, 2017 near Mosul, Iraq.
An Iraqi flag flies next to a large crucifix in the predominantly Christian Iraqi town of Qaraqosh on 16 April 2017 near Mosul, Iraq. [Getty]

“What we need is a new government,” exclaims Louis, a deacon at the Sayidat al Najat church and commercial attaché at the French embassy in Baghdad. “Why should Christians come back to a country that does not provide them with security and justice?”.

Louis and his son were at the Sayidat al Najat church when the 2010 terrorist attack took place during mass.

Even today, he does not feel secure in the expression of his faith in the capital, and even less so in his hometown of Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plains. “Forgiveness is our philosophy since always, and this brought us to lose our lands and properties,” Anan says.

"Why should Christians come back to a country that does not provide them with security and justice?"

Facing the unknown

In late August, the Iraqi capital hosted the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, a meeting which brought together leaders from neighbouring countries and other regional powers such as Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Aimed at resolving disputes and bringing stability to the region, the summit was proposed almost a year ago by French President Emmanuel Macron, who was also present at the conference.

For both Anan and Louis, the visit of the French president was an encouraging sign for Iraq. “France takes care of humanity, beyond any religious identity,” affirms Anan, who sought refuge in France for six months in 2015. “Even after the terrorist attack in our church, they were among the first to offer support,” she recalls.

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“Nevertheless... We’ve seen so many regional meetings in recent months: Egypt and Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Each time, negotiations are supposed to improve stability. Everybody gives us a lot of promises but nothing comes out of it,” Anan says.

But even if their future looks bleaks, Anan and Louis both say they will vote next month in elections scheduled for the 10th of October.

"It is our right, even Pope Francis told us in March not to give up on our rights," they both say. According to recent surveys, most Iraqis have no intention of going to the polls - some have not even registered their biometric card to vote.

Louis has a different approach, and even knows who he will vote for. “It will be a new party, born from the protest movement of October 2019,” he explains.

Sofia Nitti is an Italian video journalist based in Baghdad, Iraq

Follow her on Twitter: @SofiaNitti