The Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) achieved its greatest victory in 2014 when its fanatic militants seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ascended the minbar, or pulpit, of the historic Mosque of al-Nuri and declared the formation of a new caliphate. The Islamic State’s black standard was raised atop the mosque’s famous 150-foot-tall leaning minaret with the vow that it would never be lowered.
After al-Baghdadi’s declaration, a steady stream of jihadists began flowing into the Islamic State’s territories, which eventually grew to half the size of Syria and a third of Iraq. Untold misery was inflicted upon countless innocent Iraqis. The shocking displays of violence included genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery, mass rapes, forced marriages, and the use of child soldiers. Public punishments were carried out in the form of beheadings, crucifixions, mutilations, and stoning.
When al-Baghdadi triumphantly announced the start of his caliphate in Mosul, he spurred his followers on with the promise that their sights were ultimately set upon subjugating Christian civilization: “You will conquer Rome,” he assured them.
Less than a decade later, on March 7th, the Bishop of Rome himself arrived in Mosul. The city was left completely in ruins after a nine-month-long battle to expel the Islamic State in July 2017. Against the backdrop of the hallowed-out shells of four churches at Hosh al-Bieaa (Church Square), Pope Francis said: “Our gathering here today shows that terrorism and death never have the last word. Even amid the ravages of terrorism and war, we can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death.” In remarks that contrasted directly with those delivered by al-Baghdadi just a few years ago, the Pope continued: “we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace is more powerful than war.”
As bishop of Rome, the Mater et Caput of the Church that the Islamic State swore to conquer, Pope Francis came as the Vicar of the Prince of Peace, to help bind the wounds of the poorest and most deprived member’s of his flock and to promote the cause of harmony. The number of Christians in Iraq has plummeted over the last two decades from 1.4 million to about 250,000, which is less than 1% of the country’s population. Most have fled the country after the rise of the Islamic State, while those who remained faced having their property stolen and having to choose between converting to Islam, paying a tax, or even death. With the defeat of the Islamic State, the slow process of rebuilding has begun.
A man deeply familiar with the plight of Iraqi Christians is Joseph Fadelle, the author of The Price to Pay: A Muslim Risks All to Follow Christ. That inspiring memoir details the story of Fadelle’s conversion, which highlights the plight of Christians living in lands dominated by radical Islam. Born into an affluent Shiite family in Iraq, Fadelle risked everything—family, friends, home, and even his life—in order to follow Christ in becoming Catholic. He was imprisoned, tortured, and even shot and left for dead by his own family members for denying the Qur’an and choosing Christianity. A fatwa was issued against him, forcing him to leave his homeland into exile.
Fadelle now resides in France, where he followed the Holy Father’s visit to his homeland with close attention and interest. He recently corresponded with CWR about his impressions of Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq (his remarks have been edited for clarity and length).
CWR: What was your initial reaction to the news of the Holy Father’s visit to your homeland when it was announced in December?
Joseph Fadelle: My first reaction to the announcement of the Holy Father’s visit to Iraq was both a great joy and a real fear. Joy and hope for my country Iraq ravaged by war, divisions, persecution, destruction, barbarism. I knew this trip is of great importance to Iraq; a journey full of promise and hope for Iraq.
And fear of seeing this announced trip could be canceled at any time; until the last minute, I feared the cancellation of the trip. I was aware of the very risky context and climate of the region from all points of view, including security and health.
There is not a day that goes by that violence does not manifest itself in Iraq. I thank the Lord for the courage of the Pope to carry out this visit to Iraq, braving all the risks and obstacles. I give thanks for this historic and blessed visit, which went wonderfully well.
I followed him in the smallest details; I wanted to be present in Iraq to participate and welcome the Pope in my native country. My desire was great, but I knew that my presence would have been dangerous and a source of worry and trouble for Christians and for Muslims. I accompanied the different moments of this visit from afar …
CWR: Pope Francis has referred to Iraq as a “martyred land.” His visit to the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, which was the site of a 2010 terrorist attack that killed a total of 58, was symbolic of this. What encouragement does his visit give to the beleaguered Christian faithful of Iraq?
Joseph Fadelle: The Pope’s visit is beneficial for the whole of Iraq; he announced that he was visiting Iraq, the whole country, and not only the Christians of Iraq. The whole country mobilized to welcome him; representatives of all the communities came to meet him, the administration was deployed at all levels to organize a nice and dignified welcome. The state of Iraq welcomed the Pope. Through this welcome, Christians felt a consideration for them and for the universal Church. They are rehabilitated in the eyes of their Muslim fellow citizens.
The Pope is the only head of state who has come to visit the Iraqi people, meeting and bringing together all religious leaders of all faiths, all religions. …
This visit is a gesture of friendship and affection towards all Iraqis. By this unanimous welcome, the communities have drawn closer to each other, putting aside the divisions and the tears.
Of course there have been a few negative reviews here and there on the internet, but these reviews are anecdotal and marginal. The country’s media were all very laudatory for this visit, reporting carefully and faithfully the various meetings. …
CWR: Pope Francis held an inter-religious prayer service at the ancient Mesopotamian site of Ur, which is revered as the birthplace of Abraham, the “Father of Faith” in the One God. What is the significance of this distant ancestor to the Iraqi Christian? As a biblical land, do Christians have a natural and moral right to live in Iraq?
Joseph Fadelle: I would like to remind you that the Christians of Iraq are the original people of this land; they have been present since Abraham … The Christians of this country are not foreigners from other countries, unlike the Muslims who came in part from the Arabian Peninsula. I would like to recall that the majority of Iraqi Muslims were originally Christians; they were Islamized by force and the threat of paying the Jizya. Ur is a biblical land. Abraham is a great biblical figure, the father of the Jewish people. This biblical figure is claimed by Muslims. This is why Abraham is a figure who brings people together. The Pope, who wants to bring together and sow peace, chose this symbolic place.
CWR: Pope Francis met with the preeminent religious figure for Iraqi Shiites, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in the city of Najaf. In addition to providing encouragement and seeking the protection of his persecuted flock, Pope Francis is clearly also seeking to forge closer bonds between the Church and the Muslim world. Do you have much hope for this effort?
Joseph Fadelle: This meeting of the Pope with Ali al Sistani is of great importance—of great historical significance and a milestone in history,
Beyond the disagreement I have with Al Sistani concerning Islam, I have great consideration for this man who is a man of peace, who by his speeches and his statements has always called for peace, for agreement. Thanks to him, a lot of life was spared. It seems surprising when you see the number of deaths continuously. By his words he had the power to stir up hatred and violence; he always chose the path of appeasement, he always invited to stop fighting, he always encouraged dialogue.
This meeting takes place in the city of Najaf, the cradle of Shiite Islam, the city where Ali is buried, nearby is Al Kouffa, the city where Ali settled and installed his authority and government. It is a high place of pilgrimage for the Shiites. It is in this city of Najaf and in the same district where this meeting takes place, that a fatwa was pronounced by the predecessor of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, named Mohamed Sadek Al Sadr, ordering to kill me. Christians do not have the right to enter this city and this district because they are impious and impure according to Islam. This is the same city visited by the head of the Church; this district of the high Shiite authority in the world, which opens its doors to welcome the representative of Christ—what joy for me and what hope. It is in the order of a miracle, it is an unprecedented meeting, a meeting of great spiritual significance. I hope this meeting will bear fruit.
CWR: Pope Francis made more highly symbolic visits to Mosul as well as to the predominantly Christian city of Qaraqosh, both overrun by the jihadists of the Islamic State. Is there hope that “the darker the night the greater will be the sun’s splendor?” As Mosul, Qaraqosh and so much of Iraq rebuilds from the last decades of war, will the displaced Christians return to their homes and be able to live there in peace?
Joseph Fadelle: The displaced Christians who remained in Iraq will return to their villages of Mosul and Quarqoch, but they know very well that they will always be threatened by the Qur’an. These Christians master Arabic, in addition to their mother tongue, Chaldean. They know Islam, the Qur’an, the hadiths, and all that they contain … calling to kill the infidels, ungodly, and unclean that are the Christians. They know that the application of the text of the Quran remains a great constant threat. They know they will never be really quiet and at peace while Islam and the Qur’an exist.
The problem is not with Muslims but with the Qur’an. After Bin Laden, we had Al Baghdadi; others came before, others will follow. Names and faces change, but the violence intrinsic to Islam and dictated by the Qur’an is the same.
The Iraqi Christians who have already left the country, who have taken refuge in other countries of the West, will unfortunately not come back. They have been established elsewhere for years now. These Iraqi Christians integrate quickly and participate loyally in the life of their host country, which quickly becomes their adopted country. I can clearly see in Europe the Christians of the East integrating and assimilating to the host countries, and feel a belonging to these countries. But the Muslims remain, generations later, claimants, not considering themselves citizens of those [host] countries …
Islam is clearly an obstacle to integration, whereas Christianity is a catalyst for successful and speedy integration. Muslims remain foreigners at heart, seeking to take advantage of the country that welcomes them by repeating to their children and grandchildren that these countries of the West are countries of disbelievers, that the land of the West is a land of impiety and of impurity.
CWR: You provided a source of tremendous inspiration in detailing your conversion in The Price to Pay. You were, indeed, willing to pay the full price to become a Christian. Many of your Iraqi Christian brethren have proved the same over these past two decades of war. What inspiration ought the rest of the world take from their example?
Joseph Fadelle: The words of Christ are addressed to every baptized person, to me since I met him and chose to follow him, to Christians in Iraq, to Christians everywhere:
“…and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mt 10:22)
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” (Mt 24:9)
“But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.” (Lk 21:12)
… Persecution takes different forms. Are Christians really free today in the West? Can a Christian freely express and live his faith in the environments in which he evolves, in his work, in the media, in the public sphere without being worried about losing his job, of being put aside, to be caricatured, humiliated?
“Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man!” (Lk 6:22)
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.” (Jn 15:18-20)
Nothing is more important, nothing is more precious than Christ. Nothing will be able to separate us from him. Christ redeemed us with his blood, he gave his life for us; we are precious to him. Yes, the world is astonished to see Christians for centuries enduring persecution without renouncing their faith. They know that the greatest treasure is Christ who loves us without measure. So nothing is dearer than Christ, nothing deserves our attachment and our love outside of Christ; he is our Life, in him is our hope.
The Christians of Iraq, strengthened by the visit of the Holy Father, can be the light for their Muslim neighbors; they can be the salt of the earth (Mt 5:13-15).
I invite the Muslims of Iraq, to reflect on Islam, on the Qur’an, to seek the truth and to rediscover their Christian roots, which existed long before to Islam.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!