After the Pope’s visit to Iraq, Christians delighted, but without illusions

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BAGHDAD | The first visit of a pope to Iraq has delighted Christians in this overwhelmingly Muslim country where many of them have been persecuted, but his coming and his calls for religious freedom will not change anything, believe the faithful without illusions.

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This is the case of Wajdane Nouri who above all does not want to “forget the joy” brought by Francis to Baghdad, but after years of “injustice”, this Christian woman will soon join her daughters in the United States.

In Saint Joseph’s Cathedral, where she has animated the choir and other activities for a long time, everything still bears the traces of the Argentine Pope: huge posters in his effigy, red carpet of honor and bouquets en masse …

The Sovereign Pontiff made history on March 6 by pronouncing a mass in the capital ravaged for 40 years by wars, economic crises and other religious clashes. Previously, he prayed in a church theater ten years ago of the worst anti-Christian attack in Iraq.

After the Pope's visit to Iraq, Christians delighted, but without illusions

Ms. Nouri has lived through all these years of scarcity and fear, and after “the persecutions and injustices, we must learn lessons”, believes this fifty-something.

For her, as for the 400,000 Christians of Iraq, the Pope’s words about the fact that no one should be a “second class citizen” or about “the plague of corruption” resonated particularly. Their grievances, the Sovereign Pontiff himself pronounced them out loud.

But in 20 years, the Christian community has grown from 6% to 1% of the Iraqi population. And it will be necessary to launch large projects to stop the bleeding, warns Father Nadheer Dakko, priest in Saint-Joseph.

Grand Shia Ayatollah Ali Sistani said he was working to ensure that Christians in Iraq live “in peace” and with “all their constitutional rights”, and Prime Minister Moustafa al-Kazimi has declared a “day of tolerance”.

After the Pope's visit to Iraq, Christians delighted, but without illusions

But “we do not need national days, the great theories must be turned into actions. So far we have not felt any change in our everyday life, ”Father Dakko told AFP.

“Still in ruins”

In Iraq, “there is no opportunity for brilliant people,” deplores Ms. Nouri, pointing to a system known for its patronage, in the hands of predominantly Muslim parties de facto excluding Christians.

Sara, another Christian from the small handful of faithful who came to attend Mass, saw almost all of her family and friends go into exile. “They do not think at all to come back,” said this official to AFP.

And in a country where the Constitution affirms that “Islam is the state religion and the source of legislation”, the pope’s calls for “freedom of religion and conscience” are likely to remain a dead letter, warns William Warda , from the Hammourabi NGO for the defense of minorities.

After the Pope's visit to Iraq, Christians delighted, but without illusions

For years, this Christian activist has been trying to change the law known as the “identity card” which is harmful to Christians. This text provides for the automatic change of religion on a civil status document of a person whose parents have converted to Islam. Thus “Christians have been registered as Muslims against their will”, assures Father Dakko.

As for Saadallah Mikhail, he still has not been able to rebuild his house in Mosul, in the north, which he abandoned in 2014 when the Islamic State (IS) group landed. Upon liberation three years later, the 61-year-old Christian was among the first to return. But he had to rent a new house, because his in Old Mosul was nothing more than a heap of ruins that are still mined today and that no one can approach.

“The homes of my relatives and 3,000 Christians are still in ruins and I don’t think they will be rebuilt soon,” the man continues.

If the Pope was surrounded by Christians in Mosul and other places in the north where he passed, many had come as visitors after having settled for several years in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.

In front of the Pope, local officials kept calling on Christians to return “to their homes, to Mosul. But we cannot tell people to come back without providing them with security, hospitals, schools and infrastructure, ”insists Mr. Warda.