ROME — Pope Francis will travel next month to Iraq, a land devastated by ongoing conflicts that have uprooted more than a million Christians in just two decades, France 24 reports.
In 2003, at the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign, there were 1.5 million Christians living in a country with a population of 25 million people, notes William Warda, co-founder of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, whereas today, fewer than 400,000 Christians remain in a country of 40 million people, most of whom are Muslims.
This means that as a percentage of the Iraqi population, Christians have shrunk from six percent to one percent in just twenty years. In the capital of Baghdad things are worse still, as the community of 750,000 Christians has diminished by 90 percent.
Others are even more pessimistic in their assessment of the situation. A 2019 report from Aid to the Church in Need stated that Christians in Iraq have diminished to “well below” 150,000 and perhaps even “below 120,000.”
About a half of Iraq’s million-plus Christian émigrés have resettled in the United States, while the other 500,000 have landed in Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden, and other parts of Europe.
In August, 2019, Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil offered a dire forecast for the future of Christianity in the region, saying that recurring Islamic purges will eventually lead to the extinction of Christians.
Archbishop Warda said that the Islamic State invasion of Iraq in 2014 was an exceptional situation, but it’s not an isolated one. “It was part of the recurring cycle of violence in the Middle East over more than 1,400 years,” he said, which is leading to the gradual eradication of Christians from the area.
“With each successive cycle the number of Christians drops, till today we are at the point of extinction,” Warda said. “Argue as you will, but extinction is coming, and then what will anyone say? That we were made extinct by natural disaster, or gentle migration? That the ISIS attacks were unexpected, and that we were taken by surprise? That is what the media will say.”
“Or will the truth emerge after our disappearance: that we were persistently and steadily eliminated over the course of 1,400 years by a belief system which allowed for recurring cycles of violence against Christians, like the Ottoman genocide of 1916-1922,” he said.
Like many Iraqi Christians, Archbishop Warda looks forward to the upcoming visit by Pope Francis — the first ever by a Roman pontiff — with hope, underscoring the “immense” historic importance of the visit as Christians’ survival hangs in the balance.
The pope’s journey to Iraq “is already filling our communities with immense excitement and pride,” said Warda in a December 12 interview.
This visit to the Christians of Iraq “will be a massive lift for a people who have been marginalized and pushed to the very edge of their own existence after 2,000 years,” he said.
“The world cannot afford for Christianity to disappear from Iraq and the Middle East,” Warda added. “We have been here for 2,000 years and we need help. His Holiness’ visit will refocus the media’s attention on us and other ancient minorities like the Yazidis who have suffered greatly, and shed light on our plight to survive into the future.”
In a similar vein, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Najeeb Michaeel, has stressed the historic significance of the papal trip.
“This tour across Iraq is extremely important,” Michaeel told AFP. “Not just for Christians but for all Iraqis.”
“We’re under enormous pressure: the Holy Father is not your average person — he’s the representative of a state and of all Catholics worldwide,” Michaeel told AFP. “Everyone is going to want to get close to him, so it’s a huge job. All security officials are going to be on their toes.”