Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq last week was both hailed as a historic moment and criticized as an unnecessary risk during a time of pandemic. The risk of causing a super-spreader event, of course, is well understood but there were other risks, too, both political and cultural. Christians and other minorities in Iraq have suffered considerably since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. Prior to that, Christians were resented as a privileged minority. The Pope’s visit both highlighted their suffering and, in some circles, reinforced the perception that the Christian West still intends to maintain its influence over Middle Eastern affairs. So, in the end, was the visit good for inter-faith relations, or has it deepened suspicions?
Adnan R. Khan: This is the first time a Pope has visited Iraq. Why do think Pope Francis decided to visit now, at such a risky moment in history?
Ilter Turan: We must first remember that this is a unique Pope. He is very sensitive to the needs of the oppressed and the downtrodden. He has done many unusual things, and trip is another example of his uniqueness. I think what may have prompted him to do this is the reports about the treatment of Christians in various Middle Eastern societies and also the treatment of Yazidis. I think he wanted to demonstrate that his church as an international force cares for these people. At the same time, his presence there is a reminder, not only to the Iraqi government, but also governments in the neighborhood, that the mistreatment of Christians should stop and that they should be sensitive to the needs of their dwindling Christian communities.
Adnan R. Khan: What are some of the risks associated with this kind of religion-based diplomacy, especially in a country where faith is such a source of conflict?
Ilter Turan: We need to examine the role religion plays in the politics of these societies and put the visit of the Pope in that context. In most Middle Eastern societies, the political community – i.e. the group of people that constitute the citizens of the state – is identified not only by ethnicity but also often by religion. So, when we talk about the population of Iraq, Syria and Egypt, among others, we are essentially talking about a country of Muslims in which the non-Muslim population is perceived as a group within society but not belonging fully to the political community. This, of course, puts them in a very precarious position.
Historically, this hasn’t always been so, but especially since the recent upheavals which have strengthened Islamic groups – the Muslim Brotherhood or the Islamic State or the Shia militias – non-Muslims have been subjected to pressures to either leave, convert, or in some cases be killed.
Another dimension is the fact that in the kind of proxy war we have witnessed in Iraq, any support that is extended to non-Muslim populations by the outside world is treated as being suspect. This is, in fact, where the Pope’s visit may also have negative outcomes. It may well be perceived by hardline Islamists as another Western intervention to undermine the prevalence of Islam in the region. And historically, particularly after the rise of Islamic nationalism, these minority populations have generally been treated as suspect by existing governments. This suspicion may have its origins in the colonial era when the colonizers found it easier to work with Christian segments of the population. Many found employment within the colonial administration, leading people to identify them as collaborators. This is no longer a meaningful category but people, in their historical conscience, still remember it.
Adnan R. Khan: How important was the meeting between the Pope and Ayatollah Sistani, the highest Shia cleric in Iraq?
Ilter Turan: First of all, I think it is important to note that there was a prominent religious leader like Sistani to meet. One problem with Sunni Islam is that there is no separate, overarching organization parallel to the state like a church. So, when you’re meeting a Sunni religious figure, you are most likely meeting someone who is also part of the governing political elite. In the case of the Shia, particularly before the Iranian revolution, the mullahs constituted a group that was autonomous of government and therefore, as a class, resembled in some ways, the clergy in Western churches. That difference has become a bit less clear now, particularly after the Iranian revolution and the rise of the religious class in politics there. Sistani, however, has managed to stay away from that. He has spoken out against the role the Ayatollahs in Iran play in its politics. In this context, the contact with the Pope may have symbolized in many ways the autonomous nature of Iraqi Shia Islam, and it may have helped the Iraqi regime to assert a Shia Arab identity distinct from Iran.