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Francis in Baghdad: Can the Pope revive the Christian community in Iraq?

The reality on the ground prompts an even more desperate question — can the Pope even gain enough political and social space for the embattled Assyrian church to survive, let alone revive? Two wars with the US and a horrendous annihilation campaign by the radical Sunni terrorist army of ISIS has all but driven the world’s oldest Christian communities into oblivion. They have lost hope that the world cares about their fate, and Francis clearly wants to demonstrate solidarity with them, prove the world does care about their fate, and convince the Christians to return.

Francis comes at a propitious time. The various factions in Iraq want to prove a few things too:

Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, invited Francis to visit in July 2019, hoping it would help the country heal after years of strife.

Francis accepted the invitation and has made it clear that he does not want to disappoint the Iraqi people, especially the country’s suffering Christian population. The Vatican believes the risks are outweighed by the chance to support and be close to them — one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

Some church officials believe the Christian faith is in danger of disappearing from Iraq. Its ranks have been dwindling for years — cut to roughly a third of the 1.5 million who lived there during the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

Francis will also meet with Shiite leaders, hoping to improve relations and establish a groundwork for peace that protects people of all religions in Iraq.

Take note of one particular meeting on this trip, as it holds great import for all of these interests. The reclusive and revered Shi’a cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has agreed to meet with Francis, a rarity among foreign dignitaries. Sistani has been the counterweight in Shi’ite leadership to the more fanatical and theocratic branches of Islam in both Sunni and Shi’ite circles in Iraq. NBC News’ Hayder al-Khoei picked up on the nuances of Sistani’s decision to meet with Francis, and what both men may hope to accomplish:

The pilgrimage to historic Babylon has been a dream of former popes — a visit to the birthplace of Abraham, patriarch of Jews, Christians and Muslims. But it also marks what is believed to be the first meeting in history between the head of the Catholic Church and the head of the Shia Islamic establishment — the Hawza — now led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most influential religious authorities in the Muslim world.

The meeting between the 84-year-old pope and the 90-year-old ayatollah is a profound statement about the importance of tolerance and dialogue in a turbulent region where too many people believe violence is a solution to fix broken societies. Both Francis and Sistani have consistently condemned violence committed in the name of religion. …

The Shia Islamic world is divided between a mainstream, Iraq-based school of Islam that believes there should be a separation of church and state and a revolutionary, Iran-based school that believes in theocracy. The meeting with the pope represents international and interreligious recognition of the mainstream Iraq-based Shia school.

This recognition provides an important morale boost for the people and organizations in Iraq and the greater Muslim world who have been working on interfaith dialogue for years but who are often dismayed that international awareness of Shia Islam so often revolves around the violent militant groups. This will hopefully lead to a strengthening of their efforts.

There’s a reason we don’t hear much from or about Sistani these days. His school of Shi’a cuts directly across the interests of the Iranian mullahs, and Baghdad has come too much under Tehran’s orbit for Sistani’s voice to carry the day. The US sought out Sistani’s support in the early days after deposing Saddam Hussein, hoping to get him into position to keep Iran from that kind of influence, but Sistani either couldn’t or didn’t want to engage on the US’ behalf, understandably under the circumstances of an occupation.

Both Sistani and Francis are in a position now where they need the same thing — ecumenical engagement. If Sistani wants his less theocratic vision of Shi’a Islam to prevail, he needs a lot more attention to it and for it to be seen as influential outside of Iran’s orbit. Francis’ visit provides the visibility for Sistani’s vision to get outside of Iraq, and lifts him up again as a counterweight to Ali Khamenei in the region among Shi’ites, and maybe some Sunnis as well.

For Francis, any move away from theocratic domination helps the Christian communities no matter which flavor of Islam is in place. The Sunnis of ISIS were genocidal, and not just with the Christians but also with Yazidis and other minorities. The hardline Shi’a militias may not be genocidal, but they aren’t much more tolerant either; they want to squeeze Christians out of their millennia-long places in Iraq and Syria, too. Even the Kurds, who have been far more tolerant than the militias and at times the government in Baghdad, aren’t all that concerned over the fate of infidels.

Over the next three days, Francis’ visit will have lots of pomp and glamour, and there will be some significant public events. However, it is in meetings like this one with Sistani that Francis hopes to reshape the future of Christianity in the birthplace of monotheism, and to perhaps even reshape the soul of Iraq and the region in the process.