BAGHDAD — On a recent Sunday in Baghdad, a congregation of Chaldean Catholics gather — masked and distanced — to attend Mass at the Church of the Holy Family. Some are from the capital, others fled the north of the country when ISIS seized swaths of territory nearly seven years ago.
"They announced it in the churches — leave, quickly, ISIS is coming," says Nadera Butrus Tobya, 62, at church with her little grandson. She had been at a gathering before her daughter's wedding near the Iraqi city of Mosul. The family piled into cars and fled the extremists and she has been in Baghdad ever since.
"Christians are persecuted," she says. But her face brightens when she speaks of Pope Francis, who plans to visit Iraq next month.
"When we heard that we would see the pope," she says, "it was as if the world was reborn. Praise God." Even if she only sees him on television, she will be happy. "He is a brave man to come under such circumstances."
If the visit goes ahead — despite a large increase in daily new coronavirus cases and security concerns, including a recent rocket attack on U.S. forces — it will be the first ever papal trip to Iraq.
Pope Francis is due to arrive in Baghdad on March 5, where he will be welcomed at the Presidential Palace, and later meet Christian leaders. He will visit Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the influential leader of Iraq's Shiite Muslims, in Najaf and attend an interreligious meeting in Ur. He will also visit the north of the country, celebrating Mass in Irbil and saying prayers in Mosul, before departing March 8.
Iraqi Christians trace their roots back almost to the very beginning of the faith, but in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion and the rise in extremist violence, the community has dwindled.
It is difficult to know the exact number of Christians still living in Iraq, because there has not been a full census since 1987, says William Warda, who works with the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, which campaigns on behalf of minorities. Warda is a member of Iraq's Assyrian Christian community.
He estimates there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq at the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion, citing an earlier partial census. Now, just 400,000 may remain in the country, he says, based on clergy tallies. "Every parish, every church knows the followers that belong to it," he says.
However, Warda says church leaders may be reluctant to release official totals in order not to lose the five-seat quota granted to Christians in the 329-seat national legislature.
"It is very normal now for a Christian family to come to me and tell me they want to leave," says the Rev. Ghassan al-Botany. He says ruefully he has no authority to tell them to stay, "but I tell them, think about it. Why? Because the Arab region lost many Christians."
He hopes hearing something similar from the pope during his visit will strengthen people's resolve to stay. "When these words come from a supreme authority, it has a flavor and a difference," he says. "The Iraqi Christian loses part of his faith, part of his legacy and part of his roots when he travels outside."
Father Ghassan says a turning point came in 2010, when militants burst into Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in Baghdad, killed two priests, and took about 150 hostages. Iraqi and American special forces burst in to free the hostages hours later, but the attack left dozens dead and the church scarred and bloodied.
More than a decade later, the pope is due to visit the same church and has called for support for an enduring Christian presence in the country and the region.
"We must work to ensure that the Christian presence in these lands continue to be what it has always been: a sign of peace, progress, development and reconciliation between peoples," Francis told a group of Catholic charities shortly after the Vatican announced plans for the trip in December.
His trip will also take him to places where very few Christians live, and most everyone is Muslim.
The schedule includes an interreligious meeting on the Plain of Ur, the site of an ancient city that scripture records as the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham. These days, Ur is an archaeological site, where visitors can tour the ziggurat — a Mesopotamian pyramid largely reconstructed in the pre-2003 era of Saddam Hussein — and sunbaked ruins known as the House of Abraham.
At the site, gardeners and construction workers are sprucing things up, while tourists play pop music and take selfies on the ziggurat.
"I'm so excited," says Bdoor al-Asady, 19, a medical student visiting the site with her parents. She's Muslim and says Abraham is an important figure in Islamic scriptures, so the pope's visit to the site matters to Muslims, too.
The site's director, Ali Kadhim, says he has been waiting for this moment since 1999, when Pope John Paul II canceled a planned trip after negotiations with Saddam Hussein failed. He has worked at the site for more than 20 years.
"This place is my life," he says. "I was isolated from the world because I spent my life here."
Kadhim notes that Abraham is central to Islam, Christianity and Judaism and, a Muslim himself, he says the papal visit is a symbol of the tolerant side of the country.
"Muslims welcome this visit," he says. "And they are interested in it, because it reflects the reality of relations between religions in Iraq."
Despite the persistence of religiously motivated violence by extremist groups, Kadhim's words echo aspirations many Iraqis express for a society where different religions and sects can coexist.
In the nearby city of Nasiriya, people admiring the sunset over the Euphrates river say they hope the pope's visit will bring more Christians to the area, possibly making pilgrimages to the ancient sites.
"It will attract people to the country," says Hussein al-Salehi, 59, a school teacher. "They will hear about it in Italy and France and elsewhere, that a senior cleric went to Iraq, and was protected, and came to no harm." He thinks it could help this poor area to prosper.
He hopes the visit will be a message of reassurance to Iraqi people, as well. "There are people here who respect and value all religions." And this, he says, is a message Iraq needs.