By Arab News
By Hussain Abdul-Hussain*
Violence, banditry and demographic change imposed by Iran’s militias in Iraq on Christian towns, which were once dominated and terrorized by Daesh, have become so widespread and alarming that they prompted Pope Francis to plan a trip to Iraq — the first of its kind for a pontiff since the rise of Christianity more than two millennia ago.
Once a thriving community of 1.5 million people living across the country, Iraqi Christians have been retreating to the northwestern province of Nineveh, which has historically been one of the most diverse areas in the region and home to a few ancient communities, including Aramaic speakers. Most historians believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic.
Between 2014 and 2017, Daesh unleashed a wave of terror on all residents of Iraq’s northwest, but especially on non-Muslims. The terrorist group marked houses of Christians with the letter “N,” for Nazarene, and forced them either to convert to Islam or pay a poll tax. And those Christians were the lucky ones. Other minorities that were not considered to be among the “people of the book,” such as Yazidis, faced much harsher treatment, including the enslavement of their women.
The US led a global coalition that decimated Daesh, but Christians and other minorities still fear going back home because the power that succeeded Daesh, pro-Iran Shiite militias known collectively as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, has also been mistreating them. In a few towns, the Christians formed their own militias to fend off thuggery. But Christians lack the resources to man all their towns and neighborhoods, forcing many of them to remain displaced. And, while the Christians are away, Shiite militias have been stealing their property, either by forging deeds or by blackmailing Christians into selling at very low prices. The end result is that Iraqi Christians, whose number is now estimated at 150,000, are leaving the country in droves.
To empower these Christians and help them stay in their historic homeland, Pope Francis will visit Iraq, where he plans several stops, including at Qaraqosh — the biggest Christian city in the northwest — and at Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region. The pontiff will also visit Najaf, where he will meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. The two top clerics are expected to sign a document calling for peace, similar to the one the pope signed with his Sunni counterpart Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb during his trip to the UAE in 2019.
But Pope Francis’ Middle Eastern visits, designed to promote peace and coexistence, are not only symbolic. By meeting with Al-Sistani, the pontiff will technically recognize the Iraqi cleric as the top Shiite authority — a recognition that unsettles Al-Sistani’s rivals in Iran, especially Ali Khamenei, who, despite ruling the Iranian theocracy, lacks the religious pedigree required to overpower Najaf’s senior clerics. Perhaps Khamenei makes up for his lack of religious prominence with his Shiite militias and their violence.
Iran’s militias have alarmed Pope Francis not only in Iraq, but also in Lebanon, where the Maronite church is in communion with Rome, giving its patriarch, Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, the rank of cardinal and allowing him to vote whenever Catholicism chooses its pope. As Iran’s militia in Lebanon, Hezbollah, tightens its grip on the country, causing lawlessness and economic freefall, the number of Lebanese Christians has also dwindled, just like in Iraq. Hence the pope has impressed on Al-Rai to demand that UN resolutions pertaining to Lebanon be implemented, including the disbanding of Hezbollah and reviving of the 1949 truce with Israel.
Al-Rai’s position has not gone unnoticed with Hezbollah, whose mouthpiece described the patriarch, without naming him, as among “the worst clerics Lebanon has seen.” The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, also rebutted Al-Rai without naming him by saying that the patriarch’s demands were “unacceptable.” The irony is that Hezbollah’s regime of terror in Lebanon is built on the myth of protecting the Christians and safeguarding their rights — a falsehood peddled by President Michel Aoun, a Maronite who owes his job to the pro-Iran militia and thus toes Hezbollah’s line to the fullest.
Pope Francis seems to understand that the government model imposed by the Islamist government of Iran and its militias on Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen undermines the Christian natives of these countries and pushes them away from their ancestral lands.
So, for Levantine Christians to thrive and prosper, their states have to end their endless war and revolutionary rhetoric. This is the crux of the problem: Iran is trying to impose its model — where an unaccountable supreme leader and his militia have the upper hand over a weak president and an irrelevant state — on Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The model failed in Iran, resulting in its isolation and loss of capital and investment. As the economy sunk, the regime doubled down on its populist revolutionary rhetoric and violence levels surged.
And for Christians in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to thrive and prosper, militias have to be disbanded and the state and its institutions — especially the judiciary — should enforce laws and justice. When the world regains its trust in the state, capital will flow back in, the economy will start growing, and all citizens, including Christians, will stay in their historic homeland and put off their migration plans.
Pope Francis gets it. He appears to understand that the survival of Levantine Christians requires that the Iran regime and its militias be rolled back, and that countries be restored to normality. In reaching out to his religious counterparts like Al-Sistani, the pontiff seems to be rallying whoever he can to push in the same direction against Iran’s mullahs. If this becomes reality, not only will Christians thank him, but all citizens of the Arab countries suffering uninvited Iranian intervention will do too.
- Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.