In the Muslim nation of Iraq, Christianity is not welcomed. It exists, and to some small degree is tolerated, but anyone daring to follow the faith is subject to persecution at any given time, and without prior notice.
In 2014, ISIS militants drove Christian communities from their homes in the Nineveh Plains of Northern Iraq where the majority of them lived. Many of them never returned to the shambles they once called home. Buildings were leveled and entire communities were destroyed beyond recognition.
Nasser Banyameen remains a resident of Qaraqosh, a small town located in the heart of Iraq’s Christian settlements. Because of the Christian history surrounding the region, Banyameen hopes to rebuild and preserve what remains. To do this he and some others have enlisted some help.
In March, Pope Francis has agreed to drop in for some neighborly hospitality. Because of the area’s decrease in population, a visit from the pope might encourage some of the former residents to return. Until ISIS came along, residents had enjoyed the benefit of safety in numbers.
Upon learning the news of the pope’s visit, Iraqui and Vatican flags were strung from light poles. This will the first trip for Francis since the onset of the pandemic, but even more so, it’ll be the first time a pope has ever set foot on Iraqui soil.
The undersecretary of the Vatican’s development office, Monsignor Segundo Tejado Munoz said, “There’s someone who is thinking of you, who is with you. And these signs are so important. So important.”
Northern Iraq is littered with burnt and demolished buildings but the destruction came only after homes were ransacked for anything of value. Some Christian towns throughout the Nineveh Plains were completely abandoned. Residents had but two options: Leave or die.
Fewer than half of those who fled have returned.
The Vatican has long harped on the importance of preserving the rich Christian history of the area. In order to do so, the communities living within must have promises of security, as well as the proper economic and social conditions needed to promote a healthy existence.
Currently, the only way for the Vatican to render aid to Iraq was through a network of non-governmental organizations that are already in-country. These organizations are involved in education, construction, and healthcare.
Since the aid is considered non-denominational, Muslims and Christians alike have been seeing the benefits. The bright side is that perhaps in doing so the two faiths will find a delicate enough balance to live harmoniously, forever and ever, amen.
The Pope’s visit in March is a play at helping Iraq find that balance. It will prove to the Muslim leaders that the Christian population has strong support outside of their largely Muslim nation. His visit will be akin to flexing a holy muscle, and to make certain they know that the world is watching.
Tejado said, “People want to look for a better future for their families, so you can’t stop them if they have the intention of going somewhere else. But at least we try to create the conditions they might return.”
Banyameen had been living in Iraq’s Kurdish region since fleeing his home. He returned to his home in Qaraqosh, also known as Bakhdida, in 2019. It was like a ghost town since many of those who left, including his family members, left Iraq altogether. Most of them ended up in Australia and Germany.
Another huge problem is that there are still small bands of ISIS sleeper cells that like to drop in now and then and splatter some blood. Banyameen worries about what the future holds for his three children, so he understands the fear of others returning.
“The homeland is the family, not the house … I feel very homesick. When something is broken, it doesn’t go back to the way it used to be,” he said.
Banyameen’s wife, Ban Saeed, is not so certain she shares her husbands’ enthusiasm. “If we left, I am sure their future would be better abroad, not like here,” she said. “There would be safety and I wouldn’t be scared for them when they come and go.”
This will be a first for the pope and for Iraq. We only hope it leads to a more peaceful and prosperous relationship between two religions whose Godly differences will not allow them to be worldly friends.