Pope Francis: 'We cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion'

Sent On: 
Thu, 2021-03-18
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The historical papal visit has been covered in both Western and Arabic media. Arab-West Report had to delay its commentary due to the tragic death of one of our refugee students.


The purpose of the Pope’s visit was to encourage the diminishing local church. Many Islamophobes attribute the demise of Arab Christianity to Islamic extremism such as the so-called Islamic state. Many media highlight such extremism and Western populist politicians use this if this suits their agenda. This, however, is a highly distorted presentation of reality.


Pope Francis in Mosul, Iraq, March 7, 2021. Source of photo: Vatican News


Adherents of any religion are truly diverse. Islam and Christianity are no exception. Major Muslim leaders encourage Christians to remain in their countries and regions of origin. Western leaders and media tend to underestimate the importance of political developments on the formation and development of extremist thought. When violence and injustice take place adherents of religions of course seek answers in their own religion. This indeed may result in extremist thought. The Pope is fully right that 'We cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion.'


Iraqi Christianity has a history dating to the first century. Not many people are aware that the percentage of Christians increased in the second half of the 19th century but rapidly declined after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. The Ottoman Empire, whatever we might think of it, brought at least a certain stability. The Ottomans also allowed Christian missionaries to set up schools and hospitals. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire brought nation states with borders that were artificially drawn by Western powers, in particularly the UK and France. These nation states were often far from stable. Revolutions, coup d’états and civil wars have taken place. Arab-Christians were placed in a very awkward situation. At the one hand they received support from Western churches. Christian political activists, mostly migrants from different Arab countries, asked Western politicians to interfere on their behalf in the Arab World. Arab Christian leaders also tended to ally themselves with autocratic rulers, a way of self-protection. But when these rulers lost power their protection disappeared, and Christians became the victim of political-religious groups that resist western political interference in the predominantly Muslim Arab World.


This is a process that one can see in all Arab countries. The predominant Christian response has been emigration. The link between a country in political chaos and Christian emigration is obvious.


The US led war in 2003 against Saddam Hussein [Ṣaddām Ḥussayn] in Iraq was a disaster for Iraqi Christians. A Dutch professor of Religious Studies at that time gave a lecture in which he stated this war was bombarding the Christians out of Iraq. He, rightly, foresaw that this would result in chaos and that Iraqi Christians would become a major victim of this. Sadly, many (Christian) politicians do not realize the effects of their political actions on the Christian communities in the Arab World. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Christian Democratic Party supported this war against Iraq and with this has become co-responsible for the demise of Iraq’s Christianity after 2003. This was a war based on lies. President Bush lied that Ṣaddām Ḥussayn had weapons of mass destruction. His Minister of Foreign Affairs, Collin Powell, later acknowledged, that the president asked him to lie about these weapons. Ṣaddām Ḥussayn was an awful dictator, ruthless against his political opponents, but Christians were living in relative peace and prosperity during his reign. I remember a press conference of the Cairo Foreign Press Association in 2004 or 2005 where a diplomat from the US Embassy criticized the dismantling of the Iraqi army in May 2003, putting 400,000 former Iraqi soldiers out of work. This created a large pool of armed and disgruntled youths for the insurgency, many of whom who were recruited by militant Jihadi Salafis who gained prominence in early 2014 when they drove out Iraqi forces out of major cities, including Mosul, where they committed major massacres against Yezidis and Christians. Iraq counted in 2003 1,5 million Christians. Today perhaps 250.000 Christians remain in Iraq.


One cannot see the demise of Iraqi Christians without seeing that this was the consequence of a totally misguided Western interference in Iraq. This history of Western interference goes further back.


Ṣaddām Ḥussayn became the 5th president of Iraq in July 1979, not long after Iran's Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution. Iraq invaded Iran with Western and Arab support and annexed a part of Iran that had a sizable Arab minority resulting in a dirty war costing hundreds of thousands of lives and huge debts for Iraq. This was the basis for the second Gulf war with the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Kuwaitis funded the expulsion of Iraq with help of USA. Ṣaddām Ḥussayn, initially seen as a friend of the West now became the pariah of the West. Iraq faced until 2003 a boycott that primarily hit the Iraqi population, not the elite around Ṣaddām Ḥussayn.


What we have seen in the past decades is the sad destruction of Iraq with millions of victims.


I visited Iraq in the year 2000 since Pope John Paul II wanted to visit Iraq and of course Ur, the city of Abraham. Due to US pressure Pope John Paul II did not travel. I am glad that Pope Francis had the courage to travel despite the covid-19 travel restrictions. The Pope’s visit also included a visit to destroyed churches in Mosul and a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani [Āyatullāh al-ʿUẓmā Sayyid ʿAlī al- Ḥussaynī al-Sīstānī], one of the most influential Iraqi Shia leaders and other Muslim leaders.


Pope Francis said: "How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people - Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others - forcibly displaced or killed. Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war."


The pope is not an expert on Islam but he was prepared by Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, MCCJ, and other experts at the Vatican. Never before a pope visited Iraq and never before a pope has met with a Shi’ite leader on such a high level. This was truly historic.



March 18, 2021

Cornelis Hulsman, editor-in-chief Arab-West Report