By Anchal Vohra
Pope Francis, the chief of the Roman Catholic church, visited Iraq in a historic visit last week. In a meeting oozing symbolism, the pope met Ayatollah Sistani, the religious leader of Iraqi Shias. He also visited the ancient city of Ur, which is the birthplace of Prophet Abraham, the patriarch of monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. On the last day of his three-day sojourn, he addressed a congregation at a church in Mosul, a city that served as ISIS’s capital in Iraq.
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilisation, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow,” the Pope said, “with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people—Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and others—forcibly displaced or killed.”
The church had been converted into a jail by the terrorist group, which imprisoned anyone who spoke against it or broke its rules. Most of those incarcerated, however, were minorities. The church was later destroyed in bombings by the US-led coalition forces as they supported ground troops to reclaim Mosul.
The Chaldean Christians of Iraq who inhabit large parts of the Nineveh Plains were among ISIS’s leading targets in its ethnic cleansing in the area. ISIS desecrated Christian places of worship, killed able men, and abducted Christian girls. It beheaded religious statues and advertised itself as superior to Muslim minorities, and to Christians.
Tens of thousands of Christians fled ISIS control while those who stayed back or returned lost their homes and properties. All minorities were pressurised to convert to Islam or face execution. ISIS fighters maimed Yazidi men and held the Yazidi women as sex slaves until they were territorially defeated in the battle of Baghouz in Syria in 2018.
The group had also abducted 39 Indian workers in Mosul in 2014 and according to former Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, imprisoned them in Badush prison on the outskirts of Mosul. In an investigation conducted by this author in 2016, it was revealed that the Indians were not present in the prison which had been demolished either by ISIS or coalition bombing. Many Shia prisoners, and perhaps the Indians too, were killed whilst inside the prison.
The Catholic Pope travelled to the Middle Eastern country to end a chapter of unmatched communal disharmony at a time America’s new president, Joe Biden, has promised to end the US’s forever wars including Iraq.
The visit has produced iconic imagery that experts said is expected to have an impact on the hearts and minds of people who may have sympathised with the ideas of ISIS and seen Christians as enemies. It also came soon after Biden announced his will to re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran. Many see it as a first sign that peace might be ushered in between American troops on the ground in Iraq and Iran-backed militias who have vowed to oust the Americans.
However, the Christians, and Muslims in Iraq are once again terrified of ISIS. There has been a steep rise in ISIS’s attacks in Iraq and Syria, mainly in the desert on the border near which Mosul lies. While the group’s physical caliphate was destroyed, its ideology was not. Many of the ISIS terrorists had just dispersed to lie low, regroup and re-emerge as a force another day. It is still believed to have 10,000-15,000 soldiers scattered around the region and US $300 – $500 million in reserves.
ISIS’ recent attacks display the group’s ability to inflict maximum damage and, once again, sow the seeds of discord between communities.
Last month, ISIS’ suicide bombers lured the shoppers towards them in a crowded market in Baghdad before they blew themselves up. ISIS later claimed the attack and said it was against Iraqi security forces and Shia militias.
Christianity was embraced in what is now Iraq in the 1st century AD. ISIS wished to wipe out the Christians from Iraq’s map. The group’s resurgence presents a mortal fear to those Christians who remained or returned to the country. They hope that the Pope’s message of peace would prevail and weaken ISIS and its ideology, but that may just well be wishful thinking.
In 2019, Pope Francis also visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and met the Grand Imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque, one of the senior Sunni clerics in the world. He signed a peace treaty with the Imam called “document on Human fraternity.” He also called for an end to hatred, violence, extremism, and blind fanaticism in the name of religion. During his Iraq visit, he reiterated his conviction and said that “fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.”
But there are limits to the Pope’s influence and appeal despite his high connections. He may have touched a chord with Muslims in the region, softened them. His outreach, however, is unlikely to stem ISIS’s resurgence.