BAGHDAD: In the sacristy of St. Joseph’s Chaldean Cathedral in Baghdad’s Karrada district, Rev. Nadhir Dako lets out a tired sigh.
Not only has he and his team of volunteers been working hard to prepare for the arrival of Pope Francis, he is also weary of the growing hardship faced by Iraqis in general and the Christian community in particular.
“There are no more than 150 families of faithful left” in his parish, Dako told Arab News. “All the others fled to Jordan, Turkey or Europe, and no one has been able to return because of the economic crisis or because the armed militias seized their property and their homes.”
When Pope Francis arrives in Iraq on Friday, he will become the first pontiff to visit Iraq. In Baghdad, preparations for his arrival were made amid threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and breaches of security. Despite the challenges the pope faced in making this historic visit, the plight of Iraqi Christians in recent years seems to have fueled his determination to make sure it went ahead.
This means Christians now make up less than 2 percent of the country’s population.
“It’s very difficult to see the faithful leave the country,” said Dako. “I pray alone at the altar. Sometimes, saying mass in front of an almost empty nave, I really feel like a stranger in my own parish.”
Since the 2003 US-led invasion sent security in the country into free fall, the number of Christians has decreased by about 90 per cent. However, economic and political factors are as much to blame for the decline as the threat from extremist groups such as Daesh.
The announcement of the papal visit gave this distressed community a little much-needed hope. In the Karrada district in central Baghdad, graffiti and placards mask, as best they can, the massive reinforced concrete barricades that protect most churches.
“Benvenuto a Francesco,” (welcome, Francis) is the message on one poster near St. Joseph’s where, on Saturday, the pope will say mass. While Dako is excited about the visit, he said his normal daily life is difficult.
In a country dominated by corruption, jobs are often handed out to members of the most influential religious groups, Sunnis and Shiites. Combined with this corruption, the dire state of the economy in Baghdad means that Christians struggle to find good jobs. As a result, more and more are considering leaving Iraq. Those few who remain in the city often struggle to pay the rent and school fees for their children.
“Many families fled Iraq because of Islamic State (Daesh) … but nowadays they try to leave Iraq because of this bad situation for all Iraqis in general,” Dako said. “Instability of the economy has forced Christians to leave Iraq.”
When the pope’s visit was announced in December, morale was briefly lifted. Bishops in Iraq said it gave hope to Iraqi people who have suffered greatly, and would encourage Christians to return. Two months later, the sense of desperation is evident everywhere.
During his 35 years as a priest in Baghdad, Dako has seen many churches close or be destroyed. In December, he decided to visit St. Jacob’s church in the southern outskirts of Baghdad.
“I used to say mass there in 1996,” he said. “Now there isn’t even an altar. There are not any Christian families left in that neighborhood, anyway.”
The church was burned down by Daesh in 2015 and was not rebuilt, even though it is located in a district that before the 2003 invasion hosted the largest community of Assyrian Christians in Iraq.
“Today there are no more than half a million Christians in all of Iraq, compared with more than 6 million in 2003,” William Warda, the president of the Hammurabi organization, which campaigns on behalf of religious minorities in Iraq, told Arab news. “In Baghdad they were once 750,000; today they are no more than 75,000.”