By The Wall Street Journal –
Pope Francis made history this week when he became the first pope to visit Iraq, a risky trip amid heightened security risks and surging coronavirus infections. The Holy Father no doubt appreciates Iraq as the biblical birthplace of Abraham —revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims—and for its rich religious diversity that is today under threat from extremists.
The first benefit of his pastoral visit is the hope it brings to Iraq’s Christians, whose presence there is almost as old as Christianity. But the community has been attacked by extremists such as Islamic State, which has killed, raped and enslaved them. The State Department reckons Iraq’s Christian population has dropped from as many as 1.4 million Christians before the war to 250,000 today.
Similar attacks were made on Iraq’s Yazidis, another religious minority targeted by ISIS. The Jews of Iraq are almost entirely gone. The precarious position of ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq is a reminder that the real test for Middle Eastern countries goes beyond holding democratic elections and includes whether their minorities are secure. This is why the pope’s meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, the world’s leading cleric of the so-called quietest school of Shiite Islam and a moderating force in Iraq, may be the most significant meeting on his agenda.
The ayatollah knows that Shiites are a minority in most other Muslim nations across the region. Shiites also know what it’s like to be persecuted. Tolerance for ethnic and religious minorities will not come to the Middle East tomorrow. But having Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani uniting around the idea would be a powerful message to the world.