‘Francis in Iraq’: A new documentary explores what a historic papal trip meant for persecuted Christians
In his homily at the closing Mass of his visit to Iraq a year ago this month, Pope Francis ministered to the long-suffering Christians of Iraq. “The Lord wants us to be saved and to become living temples of his love, in fraternity, in service, in mercy,” he told them.
When Iraq’s Christians were targeted for extermination by the so-called Islamic State, many Westerners were surprised to learn there were even any Christians there. Of course, they have been there from the very beginning. And by meeting them, we meet people who don’t have the luxury of being lukewarm in their faith. They teach us what true trust in Christ and hope in Him looks like.
The papal pilgrimage to Iraq was 20 years in the making, fulfilling a desire of St. John Paul II, and it was an act of courage on the part of Pope Francis.
A new documentary, “Francis In Iraq,” is an opportunity for just such an encounter for all of us who aren’t able to get on a plane to Erbil or visit Nineveh province where many Iraqi Christians live. The work of Stephen Rasche, an American who works with the Archdiocese of Erbil and the author of The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East, it simply lets the Christians of Iraqi-Kurdistan and Nineveh tell their story. More about them than Pope Francis, it highlights their gratitude by showing why it was so important to them that he visit Iraq.
The papal pilgrimage to Iraq was 20 years in the making, fulfilling a desire of St. John Paul II, and it was an act of courage on the part of Pope Francis. He insisted on going to Iraq despite pressure for him to cancel because of the Covid-19 pandemic and concern about his security. He bolstered the courage of the Christians in Iraq, embracing them as their spiritual father with great love and mutual admiration.
Since the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has talked about all those who are marginalized. And in a particular way, he has emphasized that we have more Christians in the world today being persecuted than even in the early church when Christians were being thrown to the lions for sport.
He led the world in a prayer for peace in Syria and the region just before all hell seemed to break loose there when the evil of Isis terrorism was unleashed. Before the pandemic, when I was still able to travel, I noticed few churches seemed to be praying for those persecuted Christians. Could the genocide have been lessened by our pleas to the Lord, by our love for our brothers and sisters under the sword in closeness in prayer?
In my office at National Review magazine, I have an icon that had been made of the Egyptian Coptic martyrs beheaded by Isis on a beach in Libya in 2015. To this day, people ask me what the icon represents and who these martyrs are. Meanwhile, the families of these martyred working men are living icons of mercy, praying for the conversion of the terrorists who brutally murdered their loved ones because of Christ.
One of the martyrs wasn’t even Christian, but he wanted the peace they radiated at that critical test of love of Christ and clear union with him. We would be a lot better off here in the West if these amazing people were household names.
I couldn’t help but think of St. Francis while watching “Francis in Iraq” for the first time: “Rebuild my church.”
It’s not breaking news that people have all kinds of opinions of Pope Francis, and generally, a lot of us don’t really want to know about all the evil in the world because it can make us feel powerless and overwhelmed. The beauty of “Francis in Iraq” is that the horror of Isis is dealt with quickly in the beginning of the film. Their Satanic acts and the suffering they caused are obviously always a backdrop to the story because that is why Christians had to flee Mosul to Erbil in the first place.
Mr. Rasche was one of the first people who entered the churches after Isis was driven from Mosul and Nineveh. In the documentary, he is able to show us what those earliest witnesses to the brutality saw, for example, a parish priest returning to his destroyed church. We feel his deep sadness as we see his natural, first reaction to the destruction.
We follow the story of a beheaded statue of Mary—restored and blessed by Pope Francis and now back home in Karamless in Nineveh province. In no small part because of this film, I suspect before long we may be calling her Our Lady of Karamless.
I couldn’t help but think of St. Francis while watching “Francis in Iraq” for the first time: “Rebuild my church.” The circumstances faced by Iraqi Christians are unique, yet there is a solidarity in the challenges and evil in both situations and the radical call to conformity with the cross. Many of the people in Iraq today feel called by God to stay in their homeland, to remain as leaven there.
In the wake of the Isis genocide, CQ Roll Call gave me a journalism award in 2016 for writing about the persecution. I was grateful for it because it put Isis’ victims in front of an elite Washington media audience, even as it was utterly humbling to receive an award designed by Tiffany & Co. while people were fighting for their existence. People would congratulate me for caring about the persecuted Christians and other religious minorities there. But what they didn’t understand is that besides the duty to tell the truth about what was happening, I’m better when I’m with these persecuted people in prayer and presence and using my media platform to bring attention to them.
“Francis in Iraq” is a gift to our souls. It puts our lives in perspective. It shows us courage and hope and joy.
During the Mass in Erbil, Pope Francis said:
The church in Iraq, by God’s grace, is already doing much to proclaim this wonderful wisdom of the cross by spreading Christ’s mercy and forgiveness, particularly toward those in greatest need. Even amid great poverty and difficulty, many of you have generously offered concrete help and solidarity to the poor and suffering. That is one of the reasons that led me to come as a pilgrim in your midst, to thank you and to confirm you in your faith and witness. Today, I can see at first hand that the Church in Iraq is alive, that Christ is alive and at work in this, his holy and faithful people.
“Francis in Iraq” premieres at The Sheen Center in New York on March 22, an event sponsored by The National Review Institute, and is expected to be taken on tour for education and conversation. It is a gift to our souls. It puts our lives in perspective. It shows us courage and hope and joy.
The joy of Iraq’s rebuilding, preparing for the papal visit, is contagious. Their future is uncertain. Will they be able to remain? Will new or old terrorists come after them again? Will a bomb from Iran destroy what they have restored? The Archdiocese of Erbil has opened a Catholic university and hospital during the reconstruction and expansion of the Chaldean Christian community. Will people in the United States know and care and support their efforts?
“Francis in Iraq” was made possible by the financial support of the Knights of Columbus. Much of the rebuilding work in Nineveh has been as well. We pray that they continue to be able to help—and that more of us join them in the effort. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ, who are so united to Jesus on the cross. You see what Christianity is meant to be in this film.
If you are in New York, please join us on Tuesday night in person. It will enrich your Lent. It will bring you closer to Christ and to a deeper awareness of what joy looks like in the midst of intense suffering. Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations will be there, and I’ll be interviewing Mr. Rasche briefly after the film.
And if you are involved in an institution that is interested in having “Francis in Iraq” brought to your site for an event of awareness and conversion, hope in the midst of division, email me at email@example.com.