Twenty years after the fall of the regime led by Saddam Hussein, Christians in Iraq continue to fight for their right to be treated as equal citizens and to live their faith free from persecution. Pope Francis’ visit was a landmark of hope in this pursuit.
Christians used to live in peace and safety in Iraq, although that tranquillity came at the cost of personal freedoms and the oppression of voices that dared to speak in opposition to Saddam Hussein.
The US-led invasion of 2003 toppled that regime, but instead of ushering in a new era of freedom and democracy, it led to almost two decades of instability, pitting Sunnis against Shiites within the country, with Christians often caught in the middle of the chaos.
The rise of the Islamic State in 2014 signalled the highpoint of persecution as hundreds of thousands of Christians were forced to flee their ancestral lands for the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan or for Western countries. The defeat of the Islamist organisation meant that many were able to return home, but many more stayed away, and the Christian community is now a fraction of what it was at the turn of the century.
Archbishop Nathanael Nizar, of the Syriac Catholic Church in Iraqi Kurdistan, prefers not to dwell on the past, however. With his eyes set on the future he raises his voice for equal rights. “We want good relations with the Iraqi Government and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, based on respect for human beings. We don’t ask for anything special as Christians, we want to be treated just as Iraqi citizens, equal to anybody else, no more, no less. We want our human dignity to be respected as all other Iraqi people.”
“What we ask is for a constitution based on humanity, not on religion or anything else, but on humanity. When you have a constitution based on religion, that means you can be treated according to that religion. But we don’t want that. We want to be treated with dignity as Iraqi citizens, because we are people of this country”, he said in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
“Remember us. We need you”
The pontifical foundation has long invested in providing Christians with the conditions to continue their lives in Iraq. When the Islamic State overran Mosul in 2014, ACN gave emergency help to settle refugees in Kurdistan, and later organised a campaign to rebuild houses in Christian communities so that they could return home. Just in 2022, for example, ACN set up a scholarship programme for the Catholic University in Erbil, finished restoring the church and a monastery in Batnaya, helped reopen a school and a church in the Christian city of Qaraqosh and funded a gathering of Christian young people in Ankawa.
“Without ACN, our situation would be different now. ACN played a crucial role in helping to provide Christians with a good standard of life, in restoring houses, churches, monasteries and supporting other kinds of activities which can help Christians to remain in Iraq. It has done a really great job, and I am sure it will continue to do a great job in the future”, said Archbishop Nizar.
Expressing his thanks to all benefactors who make this possible, Archbishop Nizar asks that Christians all over the world continue to remember their Iraqi brethren. “We want ACN to continue its work in Iraq because we still need help, Iraq is still not fully recovered, the Christian communities are still not fully recovered. Please, regardless of how many of us are here, remember that there are Christians in Iraq and they need you, and with your help they can establish their lives and continue to try to live in safely in this area.”
Seeds of hope
One important landmark in this continued effort to maintain the Christian presence in Iraq was Pope Francis’ visit to the country in March 2021. Archbishop Nizar, who is a native of Qaraqosh, says that the effects of the papal trip continue to resonate.
“He left us, but he planted hope in our hearts. The visit of our Holy Father first made us feel that we are not forgotten by the Catholic Church, and particularly by Pope Francis, and secondly gave us hope. It was a sign of joy and hope for the entire community. That hope is still in our hearts, and we live with it for the future.”