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[vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”By Claire Evans” font_container=”tag:h6|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes” css=”.vc_custom_1612205575438{margin-bottom: 22px !important;}”][vc_single_image image=”99675″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]02/01/2021 Iraq (International Christian Concern) –A rare twin suicide bombing in Baghdad was claimed by ISIS and sparked a wave of new security concerns felt across the country. Even during the height of ISIS’s so-called caliphate, the terrorists found it hard to penetrate Iraq’s capital city. That this occurred three years after ISIS’s military defeat was noteworthy. A subsequent joint mission between Iraqi forces and the United States resulted in the assassination of Jabbar Salman Ali Farhan al-Issawi (Abu Yasser). Coalition spokesman Colonel Marotto told the New York Times that Abu Yasser “was responsible for developing and relaying guidance to ISIS fighters and for helping to expand the ISIS presence in Iraq.”

Following his death, Iraqi National Security announced that they had apprehended seven militants plotting a terrorist attack in Nineveh. An Iraqi spokesperson stated that “measures were tightened at checkpoints based on security or intelligence information.” Seven Syrians were separately arrested trying to enter Iraq through Nineveh, according to the Military Intelligence Directorate. This border is considered a security risk as it is porous for militants traveling between the two countries.

Such an environment raises concerns regarding the expected March visit of the Pope to Nineveh. Particularly in the city of Qeraqosh, excited expectation pulses throughout society. “I’ve been in touch with so many priests. All are happy and excited for this historic visit to Iraq,” says one Christian. But he worries about the Pope’s visit to Baghdad. “I am not sure if the Pope will be able to meet or walk among the Christians in Baghdad, as Baghdad is a hot zone. But also the Pope’s health is a concern.”

The Pope has stated that he will meet with key Shia religious leaders, who announced this month the formation of a committee addressing Christian property expropriations in Nineveh. The committee is already studying dozens of complaints. However, it is not known whether the Pope will address this topic with the Shia leaders during his visit.

These Shia leaders are supported by Iran, which remains a top security concern for Iraq’s Christians. “When we discuss politics, it is more a long-term cause and effect, so we may get the results of something that happened decades ago. That’s why I think Iran will become stronger sooner or later, maybe not this year,” said one.

Another added, “I don’t think Iran is strong at all. They pretend they are, like, Saddam Hussein. He was not strong, but he pretended that for 35 years of life. I think it is just a weak Iraq, a weak Syria, and a weak Lebanon that makes Iran looks strong. (Just) as a human, if you want to show off your power, go to the weak people, the unqualified ones. I think as countries it is the same. If we assume that Iran was a neighbor of different countries, for sure the situation would be 180 degrees different.”

Pandemic Challenges

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that there had been 26,173 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nineveh Governorate by the end of January, with 631 still active and 494 fatalities. While this is an increase of confirmed cases, it is worth noting that the number of active is substantially improved compared to November data, and the number of fatalities is only slightly increased. The Pope has expressed that despite arrangements moving forward, he is unsure whether his trip to Iraq will occur as he does not want to draw crowds during an era of COVID. This possibility has prompted the recitation of special prayers at every mass in expectation of his visit.

The prayer recommended by Cardinal Louis Sako states, “Lord God, grant Pope Francis health and safety to carry out successfully this eagerly awaited visit. Bless his effort to promote dialogue, enhance fraternal reconciliation, build confidence, consolidate peace values and human dignity, especially for us Iraqis who have been through painful experiences that affected our lives.”

Despite the challenges posed by COVID and security restrictions, the city of Qeraqosh celebrated the placing of a statue of Our Lady on top of the Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary. This church was damaged under the occupation of ISIS, and the presence of Mary above the city brings much-needed encouragement to the community during these difficult times. The same artist (Thabit Michael) who sculpted the icon also made a similar statue for the Our Lady for the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baghdad, which was the scene of a massacre in 2010.

A local priest explained to AsiaNews, “Evangelization in our land is also done with art, which is fundamental to maintaining one’s identity. Thabit Michael is not only a true artist but also a Christian devoted to his land, who wants to revive it also through his works. He is also responsible for the statue of Our Lady in the oldest and most important church in Mosul, which we all hope to rebuild after it was devastated by the Islamic State.”

“For us, the main issue is inflation, rising prices, and the exchange rate between the dollar and our currency. All this makes the task of rebuilding that much more difficult and represents a further incentive for young people to flee, as they see no new prospects.”

Additional Challenges

IOM’s January report noted that Nineveh is one of two governorates hosting the highest number of returnees living in severe conditions (235,302). According to a displacement overview, Nineveh’s three main districts of displacement are Mosul, al-Shikhan, and Sinjar. Economic challenges further exacerbate these severe conditions. Says one woman, “This is year will be sure more difficult than the previous one. We have an election, which is concerning. We have an economic shortage, which means the government can’t pay salaries to its public servants. The possibility of protesting is increasing day after day. We already have more economic and security challenges than last year; the Iraqi dinar value has changed, we started witnessing suicide bombs after years of not having them.”

Sinjar has come under additional scrutiny from both international and domestic components. The Sinjar Agreement remains disputed. “Will you believe if I tell you that security in Iraq will be ok this year? Will you believe it if I tell you Baghdad will have ten skyscrapers in the coming three years? I think the answer to Sinjar will be the same. The agreement looks great, but what has been accomplished since then? What’s the guarantee that the two parts who signed the agreement will not use it for their own benefits?” asks one Nineveh resident.

Turkey has also increased their rhetoric towards Sinjar, warning that it may launch a joint military operation with Iraq under the guise of targeting PKK terrorists. Turkish President Erdogan stated, “Turkey is always ready to carry out joint operations against the PKK with Iraq, but we cannot openly announce the date for such operations… We may come there overnight, all of a sudden.” Such rhetoric and possibly military action would only further destabilize and discourage residents from returning home.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1612205838870{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]