In Iraq, two decades of back-to-back conflicts have left ancient Christian communities that were once a vibrant and integral part of the landscape scattered and in ruins.
Iraq was estimated to have nearly 1.5 million Christians before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. They date back to the first centuries of the religion and include Chaldean, Syriac, Assyrian and Armenian churches.
Now, church officials estimate only a few hundred thousand, or even less, remain within Iraq’s borders. The rest are scattered across the globe, resettling in far-flung places like Australia, Canada and Sweden, as well as neighboring countries.
Many of those who remain in Iraq feel abandoned, bitter and helpless, some wary of neighbors with whom they once shared feasts and religious celebrations, Muslim and Christian alike.
The Vatican for years has voiced concern about the flight of Christians from the Middle East, driven out by war, poverty, persecution and discrimination. Pope Francis hopes that by visiting Iraq — the first visit by a sitting pontiff — he will be sending a message of hope and solidarity.
Here’s a look at disasters Iraq’s Christians have endured, from Saddam’s ouster to the brutal campaign by Islamic State militants:
U.S. INVASION AND RISE OF MILITANCY
Christians in Iraq enjoyed protection and near-equal rights with Iraq’s Muslim majority under Saddam but were among the first groups targeted amid the breakdown in security and sectarian bloodbath that prevailed for years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that overthrew him.
The U.S. occupation and the chaotic years that followed ushered in the rise of religious militancy, with the al-Qaida terror network taking the lead. Killings, kidnappings and bombings became an everyday occurrence, sometimes with multiple bombings on the same day.
A Chaldean Catholic archbishop was found dead in 2008 after being abducted by gunmen. Churches around the country were bombed repeatedly by Sunni militants, terrorizing the community and setting off an exodus that continues to this day.
BAGHDAD CHURCH MASSACRE
On October 31, 2010, Islamic militants seized a Baghdad church during Sunday evening mass, killing dozens of people, including two priests, in a terrifying four-hour siege. It was the deadliest single assault ever recorded against Iraq’s Christians.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an offshoot of al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the attack at the Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church, where Pope Francis is expected to pray this weekend. The carnage deepened the mistrust between the beleaguered community and its Muslim neighbors and fueled the Christian flight from Iraq.
To this day, the memory of the massacre is etched in the minds of Iraq’s Christian community.
ISLAMIC STATE JUGGERNAUT
In the summer of 2014, fighters belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant swept over the northern city of Mosul and seized a broad swath of the country, including towns and villages in the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq.
Thousands of Christians found themselves fleeing once again the militants’ advance, taking refuge in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region or leaving the country. Over the next few years, the extremists killed thousands of Iraqi civilians from a variety of religions. They also destroyed buildings and ruined historical and culturally significant structures they considered contrary to their interpretation of Islam. Militants from the Islamic State group demolished religious and historic sites, including monasteries, mosques, tombs, shrines and churches in Syria and Iraq.
The IS juggernaut and the long war to drive the militants out left ransacked homes and charred or pulverized buildings across the north. Christians in the Nineveh plains fled the IS onslaught and many of those who returned dream of resettling abroad.
Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to make his first-ever papal visit.
The pope, who wore a facemask during the flight, kept it on as he descended the stairs to the tarmac and was greeted by two masked children in traditional dress. But health measures appeared lax inside the airport despite the country's worsening coronavirus outbreak.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said Iraqis were eager to welcome Francis’ “message of peace and tolerance” and described the visit as a historic meeting between the “minaret and the bells.” Among the highlights of the three-day visit is Francis' private meeting Saturday with the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in Iraq and beyond.
Francis' plane touched down at Baghdad's airport just before 2 p.m. local time (1100 GMT). A red carpet was rolled out on the tarmac in Baghdad’s international airport with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on hand to greet him. Francis was visibly limping in a sign his sciatica, which has flared and forced him to cancel events recently, was possibly bothering him.
A largely unmasked choir sang songs as both pope and premier made their way to a welcome area in the airport. People wandered around without masks, and the pope and the prime minister took theirs off as they sat down for their first meeting — seated less than two meters (yards) apart — and later stood next to each other shaking hands and chatting.
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Hundreds of people had gathered along the airport road with hopes of catching a glimpse of the pope’s plane touching down.
Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers” decorating the main thoroughfare. In central Tahrir square, a mock tree was erected emblazoned with the Vatican emblem, while Iraqi and Vatican flags lined empty streets.
The government is eager to show off the relative security it has achieved after years of wars and militant attacks that nevertheless continue even today. Francis and the Vatican delegation are relying on Iraqi security forces to protect them, including with the expected first use of an armored car for the popemobile-loving pontiff.
Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq's joint operations, said security forces had been increased.
“This visit is really important to us and provides a good perspective of Iraq because the whole world will be watching,” he said. The high stakes will give Iraqi forces “motivation to achieve this visit with safety and peace.”
Francis is breaking his year-long COVID-19 lockdown to refocus the world’s attention on a largely neglected people whose northern Christian communities, which date from the time of Christ, were largely emptied during the violent Islamic State reign from 2014-2017.
For the pope, who has often traveled to places where Christians are a persecuted minority, Iraq's beleaguered Christians are the epitome of the “martyred church" that he has admired ever since he was a young Jesuit seeking to be a missionary in Asia.
In Iraq, Francis is seeking to not only honor its martyrs but deliver a message of reconciliation and fraternity. The few Christians who remain in Iraq harbor a lingering mistrust of their Muslim neighbors and face structural discrimination long predating both IS and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that plunged the country into chaos.
“The Pope’s visit is to support the Christians in Iraq to stay, and to say that they are not forgotten,” the Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Luis Sako, told reporters in Baghdad this week. The aim of Francis’ visit, he said, is to encourage them to “hold onto hope.”
The visit comes as Iraq is seeing a new spike in coronavirus infections, with most new cases traced to the highly contagious variant first identified in Britain. The 84-year-old pope, the Vatican delegation and travelling media have been vaccinated; most Iraqis have not.
Ahead of the pope’s arrival Friday, dozens of men, women and children gathered in a Baghdad church, many not wearing masks or observing social distancing, before boarding buses to the airport to welcome the pontiff.
The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have downplayed the threat of the virus and insisted that social distancing, crowd control and other health care measures will be enforced. The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said this week the important thing is for Iraqis to know that the pope came to Iraq as an “act of love.”
“I come among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat ‘you are all brothers,’” Francis said in a video-message to the Iraqi people on the eve of his visit. “I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and walk together, also with brothers and sisters of other religious traditions.”
Christians once constituted a sizeable minority in Iraq but their numbers began dwindling after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. They fell further when IS militants in 2014 swept through traditionally Christian towns across the Nineveh plains. Their extremist brand of Islam forced residents to flee to the neighboring Kurdish region or further afield.
Few have returned, and those who have found their homes and churches destroyed.
An international media rights group has filed a complaint with German prosecutors against Saudi Arabia's crown prince and four other top officials accusing them of crimes against humanity over allegations they were involved in the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, authorities said Tuesday.
The German federal prosecutors office in Karlsruhe told The Associated Press that it received the complaint from Paris-based Reporters Without Borders on Monday.
The complaint, relying partially on a newly declassified U.S. intelligence report released Friday, identifies five primary suspects: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his close adviser Saud Al-Qahtani and three other high-ranking Saudi officials, Reporters Without Borders said.
They were identified for their “organizational or executive responsibility in Khashoggi's killing, as well as their involvement in developing a state policy to attack and silence journalists,” the group said in a statement.
In the U.S. report, intelligence officials stopped short of saying the Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s slaying in Turkey in October 2018, but described him as having “absolute control” over the kingdom’s intelligence organizations and said it would have been highly unlikely for an operation like the killing to have been carried out without his approval.
Saudia Arabia's U.N. ambassador, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, on Monday disputed the report, saying it didn't come “anywhere close” to proof of any allegations against the crown prince.
Saudi Arabia's embassies in Berlin and Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Reporters Without Borders complaint.
Under the German legal system, anyone can file an allegation with prosecutors and there is an obligation for them to look into the accusations. It is up to them to determine then whether they justify launching a full investigation.
German law allows prosecutors to claim universal jurisdiction in crimes against humanity, and last week they secured the conviction of a former member of Syrian President Bashar Assad's secret police for his involvement in facilitating the torture of prisoners in his homeland.
In that case, however, the defendant had been living in Germany. The Khashoggi case has no obvious connections to the country.
“Those responsible for the persecution of journalists in Saudi Arabia, including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, must be held accountable for their crimes,” Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement. “While these serious crimes against journalists continue unabated, we call on the German prosecutor to take a stand and open an investigation into the crimes we have revealed."
The U.S. document released Friday said a 15-member Saudi team, including seven members of the prince’s elite personal protective team, arrived in Istanbul, though it says it’s unclear how far in advance Saudi officials had decided to harm him.
Khashoggi had gone to the Saudi consulate to pick up documents needed for his wedding. Once inside, he died at the hands of more than a dozen Saudi security and intelligence officials and others who had assembled ahead of his arrival. Surveillance cameras had tracked his route and those of his alleged killers in Istanbul in the hours before his killing.
A Turkish bug planted at the consulate reportedly captured the sound of a forensic saw, operated by a Saudi colonel who was also a forensics expert, dismembering Khashoggi’s body within an hour of his entering the building. The whereabouts of his remains is unknown.
Besides the crown prince and his adviser, the complaint names Saudi Arabi's former deputy head of intelligence Ahmad Mohammed Asiri; Mohammad Al-Otaibi, the Consul General in Istanbul at the time of the murder; and intelligence officer Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb.
Dubai Startup Hub, an initiative of Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in cooperation with Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Campus (Dtec), the largest tech co-working space in the Middle East wholly owned by Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (DSOA), have released the Dubai Startup Report 2021, an informative guide on Dubai’s startup ecosystem for international startups and investors that are keen on exploring business opportunities in the emirate.
The report brings together the hands-on experience of Dubai Startup Hub and Dtec serving a community of more than 10,000 founders and investors, and the public policy and legal perspective on incentives and schemes available in the Emirate.
Featured in the report are several business-friendly measures introduced in recent years to support business activity, boost foreign investment and attract promising companies and investors from around the world such as several stimulus packages, the golden card permanent residency system for expat investors, a 5-year visa for entrepreneurs, a virtual working programme and a decision to grant UAE citizenship to select foreigners.
The report highlights various programmes, resources and value-added services available in Dubai that are designed to support the growth of startups and connect them to new business opportunities. Dubai Startup Hub, an initiative of Dubai Chamber, along with Dtec are among the most active startup ecosystem players in the emirate.
Among other topics of interest covered in the report are ease of doing business, economic competitiveness, government initiatives supporting startup growth, venture capital activity, free zones and the services they offer, access to finance, investment incentives and availability of skilled talent, in addition to useful tips on setting up a company in Dubai.
In addition, the report features exclusive interviews with a variety of entrepreneurship ecosystem stakeholders, including Hans Christensen, Vice President, at Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Campus (Dtec); Natalia Sycheva, Senior Manager of Entrepreneurship and Special Projects at Dubai Chamber; Hasan Haider, Managing Partner, MENA at 500 Startups; Kushal Shah, Co-founder of Dubai Angel Investors; and Dr. Abdullatif Al Shamsi, President & CEO of Higher College of Technology.
Hamad Buamim, President & CEO of Dubai Chamber, described the report as a valuable and reliable resource for startups and investors in other markets as it provides a wealth of practical information about Dubai’s dynamic and fast-growing startup ecosystem.
"The launch of the Dubai Startup Report comes as a time when startups are driving Dubai’s digital transformation, fostering innovation and playing a crucial role in building the emirate’s post-Covid-19 economy. The informative guide supports Dubai Chamber’s comprehensive entrepreneurship strategy and ongoing efforts to promote Dubai as a preferred market for high-potential startups from around the world," said Buamim.
He added that Dubai Chamber supports the growth of startups in Dubai through its entrepreneurship initiative Dubai Startup Hub by providing startup members access to resources, tools, knowledge and market opportunities that can help them thrive and grow.
For his part, Dr Mohammed Al Zarooni, Vice Chairman and CEO of DSOA, noted that Dubai’s competitiveness attracts innovative thinkers, positioning it as a preferred destination for entrepreneurs in diverse industries, especially those in technology and fourth industrial revolution applications. These sectors have recently surged, given the measures in response to COVID-19.
Al Zarooni said: "Start-ups are a pillar of a flexible economic system that is agile enough to quickly adapt to new developments and achieve sustainable growth. The facilities that Dubai offers to this dynamic segment, through a supportive ecosystem and an incubator for innovation, helps them grow and achieve strategic business objectives. The Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Campus at Dubai Silicon Oasis, which is home to hundreds of technology start-ups, is an exemplary model of the unique ecosystem that Dubai and the wider UAE offers."
He added that the Dubai Startup Report 2021 presents a holistic view of Dubai’s attractiveness as a launch pad for entrepreneurs from across the globe.
by Dubai Chamber in 2016, Dubai Startup Hub is the first initiative of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa region. The initiative aims to provide clarity and guidance for entrepreneurs throughout their journey, while it also leverages public-private sector partnerships to promote innovation and develop Dubai’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Campus is the largest tech hub and coworking space in the MENA region and a base of operations for more than 820 startups from 72 countries.
President Joe Biden said Friday that Iran should view his decision to authorize U.S. airstrikes in Syria as a warning that it can expect consequences for its support of militia groups that threaten U.S. interests or personnel.
“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” Biden said when a reporter asked what message he had intended to send with the airstrikes, which the Pentagon said destroyed several buildings in eastern Syria but were not intended to eradicate the militia groups that used them to facilitate attacks inside Iraq.
Administration officials defended the Thursday night airstrikes as legal and appropriate, saying they took out facilities that housed valuable “capabilities” used by Iranian-backed militia groups to attack American and allied forces in Iraq.
John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, said members of Congress were notified before the strikes as two Air Force F-15E aircraft launched seven missiles, destroying nine facilities and heavily damaging two others, rendering both “functionally destroyed.” He said the facilities, at “entry control points” on the border, had been used by militia groups the U.S. deems responsible for recent attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq.
In a political twist for the new Democratic administration, several leading Congress members in Biden’s own party denounced the strikes, which were the first military actions he authorized. Democrats said the airstrikes were done without authorization from lawmakers, while Republicans were more supportive.
“Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. And Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said lawmakers must hold the current administration to the same standards as any other. “Retaliatory strikes not necessary to prevent an imminent threat,” he said, must get congressional authorization.
But Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, backed the decision as “the correct, proportionate response to protect American lives.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday that Biden used his constitutional authority to defend U.S. personnel.
“The targets were chosen to correspond to the recent attacks on facilities and to deter the risk of additional attacks over the coming weeks,” she said.
Among the recent attacks cited was a Feb. 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition troops.
At the Pentagon, Kirby said the operation was “a defensive strike” on a waystation used by militants to move weapons and materials for attacks into Iraq. But he noted that while it sent a message of deterrence and eroded their ability to strike from that compound, the militias have other sites and capabilities. He said the strikes resulted in “casualties” but declined to provide further details on how many were killed or injured and what was inside the buildings pending the completion of a broader assessment of damage inflicted.
An Iraqi militia official said Friday that the strikes killed one fighter and wounded several others.
Kirby said the facilities hit in the attack were near Boukamal, on the Syrian side of the Iraq border, along the Euphrates River.
“This location is known to facilitate Iranian-aligned militia group activity,” he said. He described the site as a “compound” that previously had been used by the Islamic State group when it held sway in the area.
The Iraqi militia official told The Associated Press that the strikes against the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades, hit an area along the border between the Syrian site of Boukamal facing Qaim on the Iraqi side. The official was not authorized to speak publicly of the attack and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Speaking to reporters Thursday evening shortly after the airstrikes were carried out, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “I’m confident in the target that we went after. We know what we hit.”
Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen U.S. military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend U.S. troops in Iraq and send a message to Iran. The Biden administration in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist.
The U.S. has previously targeted facilities in Syria belonging to Kataeb Hezbollah, which it has blamed for numerous attacks targeting U.S. personnel and interests in Iraq. The Iraqi Kataeb is separate from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the war in Syria, said the strikes targeted a shipment of weapons that were being taken by trucks entering Syrian territories from Iraq. The group said 22 fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi umbrella group of mostly Shiite paramilitaries that includes Kataeb Hezbollah, were killed. The report could not be independently verified.
In a statement, the group confirmed one of its fighters was killed and said it reserved the right to retaliate, without elaborating. Kataeb Hezbollah, like other Iranian-backed factions, maintains fighters in Syria to both fight against the Islamic State group and assist Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in that country’s civil war.
Austin said he was confident the U.S. had hit back at “the same Shia militants” that carried out the Feb.1 5 rocket attack in northern Iraq.
Kirby credited Iraqis with providing valuable intelligence that allowed the U.S. to identify the groups responsible for attacks earlier this year. The U.S., he said, then determined the appropriate target for the retaliatory strike. He said the U.S. also notified Russia shortly before the strike as part of the ongoing deconfliction process of military activities in Syria.
“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said.
Syria condemned the U.S. strike, calling it “a cowardly and systematic American aggression,” warning that the attack will lead to consequences.
U.S. forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.