While growing up in Canada, I vividly remember a moment that occurred during my elementary school’s lunch recess. Our prayer group, which met every Wednesday to say the Rosary, was just finishing up when a friend noticed a hung portrait of Pope John Paul II. He began to reflect nostalgically on the Holy Father’s previous Canadian visit only a couple of years earlier.
Following my friend’s train of thought, I looked up at the pontiff’s likeness and wondered aloud if Pope John Paul would ever visit another country that I had a strong attachment to: Iraq. With a puzzled look on his face, my fellow student looked at me and exclaimed—in that innocent but searing tone only young kids can utter—“He can’t go there, the suicide bombers will get him!”
Earlier this year it was announced that Pope Francis would be making a historic visit to Iraq in early March. This trip will undoubtedly bring hope to many Iraqis, Christian and non-Christian alike, who are all struggling within a very bleak political and social environment. During the Holy Father’s time there, he will visit the country’s Christian groups, including that of my own Chaldean Catholic community, as well as meet with revered Shia religious leader Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husaymi Al-Sistani, and various other religious and political leaders.
Solidarity in a Diaspora
The significance of the timing of Francis’s visit cannot be understated. Iraq has long suffered due to various militia groups working under the direction of a clientelistic political elite, in addition to interference from Iran, a lack of bureaucratic infrastructure, crippling economic conditions—not to mention the well-known reverberations of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Decades-long violence in the country has contributed to what is effectively a failing state and an increasingly beleaguered population.
For me as an Iraqi Catholic, albeit one who lives in the diaspora, the Pope’s trip is particularly poignant. Having grown up being the only non-white student at my Canadian Catholic elementary school—and being subjected to so many of those all-too-common questions like, “Are there Christians in Iraq?” and, “Did your family convert from Islam?”—the Holy Father’s visit fills my heart with the sense of solidarity with the Church that I’ve been waiting for. Knowing that Pope Francis is committed to engaging with Iraqi Christians, I consider it a timely act of compassion and attentiveness to a dire situation in a country often overlooked or ignored in the West.
Growing up Chaldean Catholic
As an Iraqi Canadian, it was wearying having to answer my peers that yes, there are Christians in the Middle East and no, my family did not convert from Islam. To complicate things further, I additionally had to explain how my Chaldean Church is one of the oldest in the world, and that our branch of Catholicism speaks the closest living language to Jesus’ Aramaic. While, as an immigrant, I never felt deterred from engaging with the Roman style of Catholicism that impacted much of my youth, I also never truly experienced any real sense of solidarity between Iraqi Catholics and the rest of the local Catholic community, besides a few archdiocese-sponsored events focused on Middle East Christian persecution. It wasn’t until I entered University that I found myself in an active and thoughtful community of Catholics of all stripes, including a few Iraqi Catholics. This experience—combined with Pope Francis’s arrival tomorrow in the Middle East to mingle with Iraqi Christians in person—fills my heart with that sense of solidarity I’ve been hoping for. To know that the Vicar of Christ’s historic excursion will shine a spotlight on the plight of Iraqis boldly communicates that the Catholic Church, despite its numerous controversies and contentions, still cares for its most maltreated members.
At times Chaldean Catholics such as myself can feel on the periphery of the Catholic community, especially when its discourses center around the Roman Catholic expression of our faith. Contemporary discussions within Chaldean churches—and indeed in other Eastern Rite churches as well—are often about the tensions between attempts to “modernize” the liturgy in order to attract a younger congregation and the desire to preserve and disseminate—with authenticity—our many-centuries-old tradition. Those of us in the diaspora, struggling with our sense of identity and religious maturation, are torn between our often inaccessible and dwindling Chaldean Catholic tradition and the ubiquitous Western Catholic one, which doesn’t resonate with our culture. Although the theme of liturgical tensions is hardly specific to us, it nonetheless comes to the forefront when our particular practices and faith expressions—which date back to the Apostles—are being methodically and violently destroyed in our homeland as we speak.
A Reason to Hope
Add to this the urgency of the situation of the lives and wellbeing of Iraqi Christians of all denominations (who have all but disappeared from the country following the 2003 US-led occupation, and more recently with the rise of ISIS in 2014), and the need for a Papal presence in the war-torn East is more meaningful than ever before. Just under a month ago, two twin suicide bombs were detonated in Baghdad. At least thirty-two innocent lives were lost. For a time, many thought that suicide bombing in Iraq was a fading danger and that this horrendous practice would stop. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. I think back to that friend in my school prayer group, fifteen years ago. I know that many Westerners today may share his sentiment that it is too dangerous for the pope to visit.
But with Francis’s sojourn upon us, at least we can say that, even if suicide bombings in the country continue, he’s willing to come anyway. We can accept this as an affirmation that the Church hasn’t forgotten about Iraq and is willing to visit that beleaguered country where danger and instability so pervade. Now, in an unprecedented way, all Iraqis, regardless of denomination, can find some sense of solidarity with the universal Catholic Church. I can’t say that the trip will have any lasting political or social consequences, but I think that, just for a time, it may bring hope to many Iraqis.
Image: From the Thanksgiving Mass of of Archbishop Nizar Semaan, The Coadjutor Archbishop of Mosul in the Church of The Immaculate, Qaraqosh (Baghdeda) – Mosul (source); © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk; License – Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). The Pope will arrive in Qaraqosh by helicopter, where he will visit the Qaraqosh community at the Church of the Immaculate Conception.