03 January 2019, The Tablet

View from Rome

View from Rome

In the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, an increasingly frail John Paul II deployed every tool in the papal diplomatic armoury to prevent the US-led invasion, something he described as “an adventure with no return”.

He ordered his Washington ambassador to lobby the White House, sent an envoy to meet with Saddam Hussein and, during a 2004 meeting in the Vatican, urged George W. Bush in a barely audible voice to ensure the “speedy return” of Iraq’s sovereignty.

The warnings were prophetic. The invasion led to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and years of political instability which saw extremism thrive. Some of the people worst hit by the war and its aftermath have been the country’s Christians. In the decade after the invasion, their numbers fell dramatically, from 1.5 million to around 250,000.

Fifteen years on and Pope Francis and the Vatican are again focusing on Iraq, a land where Christians have lived since the time of the apostles, and where many still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. After receiving Iraqi President Barham Salih in the Vatican last November, this Christmas the Pope sent his top diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See secretary of state, to spend Christmas in Iraq. There are even whispers that Francis might visit the country, a move that would be a bold act of solidarity with an almost forgotten persecuted minority.

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