Reporting and Photography by Christopher Dowd
Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Ankawa, a largely Christian area of Erbil
Just days after the last of a string of rocket attacks throughout both Iraq and the Autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq Pope Francis landed in Baghdad among serious concerns about security. During this trip he visited a destroyed Mosul and prayed among the rubble the the Islamic State left behind, and visited the surrounding plains of Ninevah. He also visited major sites that have great significance to all Abrahamic Religions, whether that be Judaism, Christianity, or Islam such as the Holy City of Najaf. What might have the most significance though is his visit with the Grand Ayatollah of Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani, leader of Iraq's Shi'ite population, which makes up about 70% of Iraqs total population. Ayatollah Sistani has often been seen as a force for moderation, countering more extreme sentiment thats been pushed, especially by hardliners in Iran. This meeting was one that was extremely historic and seems to have went well with both religious leaders showing great respect for one another.
Kurdish, Vatican and Iraqi Flags hangs near Franso Hariri Stadium
With the schedule it does seem to show that Pope Francis is far from ready to slow down, with just Sunday alone leading mass in the center for four destroyed Churches that the Islamic State bombed, while speaking about the cruelty brought to Yazidis, Christians and Muslims alike by the proclaimed Caliphate that brought so much destruction to "the cradle of civilization". After that his visited the historic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, an Assyrian area about 15 miles South-East of Mosul that was also ravaged by ISIS. This was followed by his mass at Franso Hariri Stadium which saw Christians from around Northern Iraq bussed in to see the Pope on his final full day in Iraq. After which he left to fly back to Baghdad, being sent off by the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Governance for a morning flight out of Iraq, ending the largest security operation in Iraq since the Islamic State lost Mosul.
Popes Final Mass in Erbil Iraq, known locally as Hewlêr, at Franso Hariri Football Stadium
Massive Security Operation for Popes Visit
Massive Motorcade for Pope with United Nations Security, Secret Police, Asayish (Internal Security Forces), Police and Peshmerga (KRG Armed Forces) along with Vatican Security
The motorcade protecting the Pope in Erbil involved enough armed men to make up a large Battalion which was made up of everything from the KRG Armed Forces, the Peshmerga, Asayish (Kurdish Internal Security), Traffic Police, United Nations Security, to Vatican Security. To travel to Franso Hariri Stadium I only made it less than a mile before my taxi was forced to turn around due to lack of clearance, leaving me to get out while I had to walk down about three-hundred feet to catch a new Taxi. Taxis were being kept in their sectors, even those transporting those who had clearance to be in the City Center, where Franso Hariri Football Stadium in located. Some of the security had a more festive attitude while the plain clothed security were much less festive and at times even interfered with my work even after showing all the necessary credentials. That said I have not seen this many armed men even on a frontline, the only place I may have seen that many security forces was on one of the largest Peshmerga bases in an undisclosed area of the Sulaymaniyah Governorate, one large enough to hold a large ISIS Prison. This amount of security was in Erbil where it is generally safe except for the occasional rocket attack from Iranian backed militias and was the only place he rode in in Popemobile. The Pope did not only have security on the ground but also had multiple military helicopters circling overhead as his motorcade headed towards Erbil International Airport, where a U.S. Contractor was killed by an Iranian Rocket just weeks ago.
These rocket attacks by Iran are allowed due to the fact that Iran has achieved a major objective by having a weapons pipeline from Tehran to Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon by using groups such as Kata'ib Hezbollah. Given the amount of control that Iran has over these Shi'ite extremism groups and the amount of recent attacks it is possible that groups like Kata'ib Hezbollah had orders to not attack while the Pope was here because of the amount of backlash there would be, which could possibly jeopardize Iran's influence over Baghdad. That said this trip was not risk free for Pope Francis due to the fact that there is still an ISIS presence within the Country and if they could they would do anything to attempt an attack on the Pope, and no one but Iran know is the previously mentioned militias controlled by Iran were ordered to stand down for a few days, which is why Erbil was the only place that the Pope rode in the Popemobile, his preferred method of travel, instead of the armored BMW that picked his up at Baghdad Airport, where Posters and flags covered up signs of violence including where Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was killed after landing at the airport last year.
That mixed with the significant security presence shows that Baghdad did not want to take any chances during this historic visit by the Pope. Pope John Paul II was the last Pope to attempt to visit Iraq but the planned visit broke down after negotiations with former Dictator of Iraq Saddam Hussein. Baghdad also went to some lengths to cover up the signs of violence that has struck the Country lately and many areas like Qaraqosh went to great lengths to fix what damage they could, although the signs of violence were inevitable and the violence is surely one reason why the Pontiff picked Iraq as his for Papal visit since coronavirus stopped them, even among worries of violence. Pope Francis clearly had it in mind to remind Iraqs population that they are all brothers and sisters of Abraham. With the violence brought by ISIS on Christian Communities within Iraq this visit may end up being one of the most significant Papal visits that Pope Francis will take.
Air Assets as Part of Popes Security with Three Military Helicopters Circling Overhead
Impact of the Popes Visit
Traffic Circle close to Erbil International Airport Decorated for the Pope's visit
In Ankawa, a mainly Christian Area of Erbil people were excited after the Popes Mass in their city. There is no question that the Pontiff's visit to Iraq was historic, but the important question will be will people hear his true message, that whether you are Yazidi, Muslim, or Christian you are still all brothers and sisters in humanity. Along with his other message, that Arab, Kurd, Turkmen or one of the other minorities here, or that whether Christian, Sunni, Shi'ite or Yazidi, Iraq must work together to make the future of Iraq better. It must work together to stop the cycle of violence that has plagued the Country for years.
Whether this will happen or not remains to be seen, both Iraq and the Autonomous Kurdistan Region have a lot of issues, especially when it comes to working together. That said when their existence was at stake due to ISIS they did work together, even if not perfectly That said unless the infighting that has plagued Iraq, and Kurdistan before it when the Kurdish civil war split Kurdistan between the now ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP which controls Erbil and Duhok, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, which controls Sulaymaniyah and Halabja who even though share the same Parliament even have separate armed forces to this day, with KDP Peshmerga and PUK Peshmerga.
The Sunni and Shi'ite split is even more severe in the South where it often turns to violence and Sunni's have their stronghold in the Anbar Province while the Shi'ite Population far outnumbers them in much of Southern Iraq. There is even a bit of a split going on right now in Sinjar among some Yazidi's, with the the new agreement regarding Sinjar, or Şengal it is referred to by many people here with arguments about the future of the Hêza Parastina Êzîdxane, or the Yazidi Protection Forces which are more aligned with the Peshmerga, and the Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şengalê and their Women's Units Yekinêyen Jinên Êzidan or known as the Sinjar Resistance Units, which are more aligned with the YPG and YPJ and have connections to the outlawed PKK. It was the PKK who during the genocide in Sinjar helped create a corridor to Syria allowing thousands of Yazidi's to escape from their hideout in the Sinjar Mountains, a source of protection for Yazidi's through the massive amount of genocides they faced during the thousands of years of their existence, to YPG controlled Syria. The one thing they both agree on is that the fact they are surrounded by Hashd Shaabi Groups is a threat to all Yazidi's so this split is less severe but the Turkish Government has labelled the YPG, YPJ who fought with United States troops against ISIS in Syria and the Sinjar Resistance Units as all part of the PKK for being part of the Kurdistan Communities Union since members of this umbrella organization who share the beliefs of Democratic Confederalism, which the founder of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan founded and preached. Turkey has called these militias a threat to their existence even though other than the PKK, have never committed an attack on Turkish soil and have only fought Turkish Proxies and Turkish Soldiers in Northern Iraq and Syria after Turkey invaded areas such as Afrin, Tel Abyad, Serê Kaniyê along with the
mountainous areas of Northern Iraq.
All of that said after the Pope's visit I heard many Christians who said they stayed up and talked about everything, including religion, some stated that maybe because of groups like ISIS they have been prejudice against the "good Muslims". Someone very bluntly asked me how I saw the political future of Iraq and I said the first stop is to stop looking backwards thousands of years, and that if you can not have someone of a different ethnicity or religion at your dinner table, which on a previous occasion this man said he would never let Muslim on his property, then how can you expect to have a future as a Country with those very same people. Muslims, Christians and Yazidi's alike want a peaceful Iraq but unfortunately a Papal visit will not cause that, hopefully though it will change some minds. A multi-ethnic and multi-religious Country will never prosper if those from different ethnicities and religions can barely talk to each other which is where Iraq is now.
That said Iraq is also effected by Irans lust for influence and their perceived need to send weaponry to the Israeli border in Southern Lebanon to Hezbollah, which they can effectively do no which is why last month Israel hit a convoy of weapons traveling through Syria. Which means Iran is going to push hard for influence over Iraq. They are also impacted by the situation in Syria which has become even more complicated after President Obama did not back up his red line and Russia entered the mix, then President Trump pulled back American Troops from the Turkish border allowing for Turkey to attack. All of this while Kurdish people got used to their Autonomy and unfortunately are not even giving Kurds the choice to learn Arabic when most of the Country does, unlike before when even though it was outlawed most Kurds grew up speaking Arabic and Kurdmanji Kurdish, and if you can not speak the same language it will be difficult for Syria to come back together even if Kurds are granted autonomy which Turkey may never accept, just like they won't accept groups that fought ISIS and present no threat to them in the Sinjar Mountains, the the Sinjar Resistance Units, which has led to Turkey striking the area with drone strikes. Iraqs future may not even be up to the Iraqi people due to the fact that so many neighboring and foreign powers have their interest there, that said healing the wounds of the past and stopping the cycle of violence as the Pope hoped would happen would be a step forward for Iraqs future, and for the Autonomous Region of The Kurdistan Regional Governance in Northern Iraq.
Sign in Ankawa in Syriac, Sorani Kurdish, Arabic and English with the Popes Message to the Iraqi People