Pope’s Visit to Iraq Can’t Escape Politicization

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

March 15, 2021

The visit to Iraq by the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis I, has drawn the attention of regional observers, for both its audacity and its significance. Given the high level of violence in the country, many wondered whether the religious leader was taking too much of a risk by traveling extensively throughout Iraq. Others expressed hope that the visit might become a catalyst for change. Equally present, however, were efforts by Iran and others to instrumentalize the visit to score points against adversaries.

The visit by Pope Francis was seen in many ways as a challenge to Iraq’s insecurity. According to a report by The National’s Mina Aldroubi et al., the pontiff seemed to be keen to visit areas that until recently were under the control of violent militias: “The Pope took a short helicopter flight to Qaraqosh – once the capital of Christian Iraq until it was almost wiped out by ISIS…. The gathering was a reminder of how much was nearly lost in Iraq with the ISIS invasion and also how far it has come in the few short years since – even if the road to reconstruction is long. Thousands gathered along the main streets to welcome the pontiff, calling out and singing as he passed. Pope Francis stopped to bless children and the atmosphere was lively and happy…. The 84-year-old pontiff set foot in areas that most western diplomats and foreign delegations refuse to include on their itineraries – they say it is too dangerous.”

The Khaleej Times reports that the visit was welcomed by religious leaders, including Dr. Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar, with whom the Catholic leader had met previously and who on this occasion “has praised the visit of Pope Francis, Head of the Catholic Church, to Iraq, describing it as ‘historic and courageous’. In a tweet, he said, ‘The historic and courageous visit of my brother Pope Francis to Iraq carries a message of peace, solidarity and support for all the Iraqi people. I pray for his success that this trip will achieve the hoped-for fruits on the path of human brotherhood’.”

Writing for Arab News, long-time contributor Daoud Kuttab framed the visit as a chance for Iraq to “turn the page,’ leaving behind its violent past and bringing the country into the international community: “It took years for Iraq to emerge from the darkness of near genocide, crippling sanctions, and war. The country has endured foreign occupation, the uprooting of its institutions and national army, and the scourge of religious bigotry, but a new Iraq appears to be finally appearing out of the gloom…. Middle Eastern and international leaders must follow up Francis’ visit with similar trips and reinforce his appeals for peace and reconciliation. Iraq is yearning to be part of the international community and is clearly open for business. A new page has been [turned], and Iraqis want the world to understand that their country is safe and that all are welcome to visit and trade with it. Iraq should be congratulated on its progress and Francis for giving Iraqis hope and helping to shine a light on an all too often forgotten country.”

However, efforts to politicize the visit were evident from the beginning as evinced by this op-ed from Hazem Saghieh, who, writing for Asharq Alawsat, points out that despite the pontiff’s best intentions, what Iraq needs most is military power to repel Iran’s growing influence, especially since “the voices of those calling for a stronger Iranian presence in Iraq to ensure that Iraqis can face ISIS grow louder, and this cycle goes on and on. The past and ongoing ramifications of granting this glorious gift to Iran could transform, in some tomorrow, into a source of guilt that supersedes all of those that preceded it. As for the pope’s visit, the fact that it comes amid this climate is a reason to worry about its productivity. This is because preaching about love to those filled with hate is likely to remain nothing more than preaching, akin to calling for peace among worriers. The fact is that only armed peace and love can save Iraq from its pains and the feelings of guilt arising from this pain. And of course, Pope Francis does not fight.”

Iranians, for their part, highlighted what they argue was Qassem Soleimani’s contribution to ensuring Iraq’s security. Press TV noted that Iranian official Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Iranian Parliament speaker’s special adviser, asserted, “Pope Francis would not have been able to visit Iraq safely today if it had not been for the sacrifices of Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani and his companions in the fight against the Takfiri Daesh terror group…. Amir-Abdollahian further denounced Washington’s interventionist policies in Iraq and the Middle East, which he blamed as the root cause of instability there. ‘America’s meddling and the presence of US forces in Iraq and [elsewhere] in the region continue to be a source of instability,’ he added.”

Other Iranian officials were also keen to point out that, while visiting with the Pope, Iraq’s revered Shia leader Ayatollah Sistani raised concerns regarding, among other things, the situation in Palestine: “Hojjatoleslam Mohsen Qomi, the vice president for international relations at the office of Ayatollah Khamenei, praised Ayatollah Sistani’s vigilance in his meeting with the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Iraq last week. The official said on Wednesday that Ayatollah Sistani’s emphasis on major global issues, including the occupation of Palestine, was actually his ‘rejection of the plot of normalization’ with the Israeli regime. He added that the Ayatollah’s dissatisfaction with poverty, deprivation, discrimination, and sanctions and his emphasis on the fact that religious leaders should fulfill their duties to counter such challenges can be a clear example of the Quranic teaching of common understanding between the leaders and followers of the Abrahamic religions.”

Meanwhile in Turkey, coverage of the Pope’s visit was dominated by the issuance of a controversial stamp by the Kurdish authorities. The pontiff visited the Kurdish region of Iraq, where, according to the Iraqi Kurdish website Rudaw, many of the country’s Christians sought refuge during the violence in 2014: “As part of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, Pope Francis met with President Barzani and other senior Kurdish officials on Sunday morning, when he arrived at Erbil’s airport. After visits to Qaraqosh and Mosul later that morning, the pope returned to the Kurdistan Region, driving through the predominantly Christian suburb of Ainkawa en route to Erbil’s Franso Hariri Stadium…. The Kurdistan Region hosts many Iraqi Christians who fled their homes when the Islamic State (ISIS) took control of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains in the summer of 2014. Many more have left Iraq altogether, with the number of Christians in Iraq currently estimated at 300,000, down from 1.5 million before 2003.”

To commemorate the event the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq issued a stamp that included a map of the Kurdish regions within Turkey’s border. Turkish officials were quick to condemn the decision and, according to the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, threatened to hold accountable the responsible parties, with presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın adding that the “’map is a grave mistake and an utter disrespect towards Turkey’…. The stamps were issued on the occasion of Pope Francis’ visit to the administration. In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said some KRG administrators have exploited the Pope’s visit as a means to expose their ‘raw dreams’ targeting the territorial integrity of neighboring countries. The map used in the commemorative stamp included over 10 Turkish provinces, including Hatay, Ağrı, Kahramanmaraş, Gaziantep, Mardin and Van as part of ‘Greater Kurdistan’.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top