Pope Francis just wrapped up a trip to Iraq this week for the first-ever papal visit to the country, a trip the Vatican has described as “an act of love for this land, for its people and for its Christians.” While there, Francis celebrated Mass in several cities and visited biblical locations like Nineveh and Ur. He also toured the remnants of Christian communities in one of the most ancient homes of the Christian faith.
This papal visit was meant to encourage Iraq’s few remaining Christians. It should also occasion solemn reflection in the United States, a country in which two in three people profess Christianity—and also the country whose misguided foreign policy contributed to the near eradication of Christianity in Iraq.
When the United States invaded Iraq eighteen years ago in March 2003, Christians accounted for 6 percent of the country’s population, numbering around 1.5 million. Christians in Iraq’s single largest sect, the Chaldean Church, still speak a variant of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Saddam Hussein’s regime was hardly friendly to Christianity—Hussein was known to persecute religious minorities, Christians included, and he canceled a previous papal trip—but Christianity was generally tolerated, and Iraqi Christians worshipped in a continuous, 2,000-year-old tradition.
After the United States invaded and toppled Hussein, violence against Iraqi Christians increased as terrorism surged into the country. Prominent clergy members were murdered. Churches were bombed. Christian worship became a life-endangering choice. “[The men of my congregation] are mainly killed. Some are kidnapped. Some are killed. In the last six months things have gotten particularly bad for the Christians. Here in this church, all of my leadership were originally taken and killed,” said Rev. Canon Andrew White, an Anglican vicar in Baghdad, in 2007. “All dead. But we never got their bodies back. This is one of the problems. I regularly do funerals here but it’s not easy to get the bodies.”
White told CBS the plight of Iraqi Christians was “clearly worse” after the U.S.-forced regime than before it. “There’s no comparison between Iraq now and then,” he said. “Things are the most difficult they have ever been for Christians. Probably ever in history. [Iraqi Christians have] never known it like now.”
Conditions have only worsened in the fourteen years since. Some Christians left Iraq to avoid martyrdom or forced conversion. Some were robbed or exiled. The Islamic State, which grew in the power vacuum left by Hussein’s ouster, targeted Iraqi Christians for genocide. ISIS fighters burned churches, ancient texts, statues, and relics. They razed a sixth-century monastery.
“Our tormentors confiscated our present while seeking to wipe out our history and destroy our future,” said Rt. Rev. Bashar Warda, archbishop of Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, in 2019. “Tens of thousands of Christians have nothing to show for their life’s work, for generations of work, in places where their families have lived, maybe, for thousands of years.”
Today, only about 250,000 Christians remain in Iraq. The rest have died or fled the violence and chaos disproportionately unleashed against them.
That ongoing violence and chaos didn’t emerge from thin air. It should go without saying that the Hussein regime was a cruel and tyrannical government which did not deserve power. It should equally go without saying that the Islamic State and other groups persecuting Iraqi Christians bear responsibility for those abuses.
But Al Qaeda, the Islamic State’s precursor, didn’t organize in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion (contrary to the claims of the Bush administration when ginning up American enthusiasm for war). Its emergence and the later development of ISIS were directly connected to U.S.-orchestrated regime change. Iraq is in its present state—and the Iraqi church is in its present state—in no small part because Washington embarked on a needless invasion and occupation which most Americans now recognize was a mistake that didn’t make the United States safer. America recklessly plunged into an indefensible war, and Iraqi Christians have suffered enormously as a result.
The United States can’t undo that suffering now. The Iraqi church may never be restored. Many of these congregations may be permanently dispersed. Some breaks cannot be repaired.
As a Christian, I pray for our Iraqi siblings in Christ and mourn how my country contributed to the destruction of their communities. As an American, I hope my government will never repeat its mistakes in Iraq. Washington must learn from the havoc it has wreaked in the post-9/11 era and adopt a more peaceful and humble approach to foreign policy, no longer imagining we have the ability or prerogative to remake other countries by force. Our handiwork is shoddy. Our record is bloody. The Iraqis Pope Francis visited know it all too well.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.