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In Iraq's ruined city of Mosul, pope hears of life under Islamic State




Muslim and Christian residents in the ruined Iraqi city of Mosul told Pope Francis of their lives under brutal Islamic State rule on Sunday (7 March) as the pontiff blessed their vow to rise up from ashes and told them: “Fraternity is more durable than fratricide,” write Philip Pullella and Amina Ismail.

Francis flew into the northern city by helicopter to encourage the healing of sectarian wounds and to pray for the dead of any religion.

The 84-year-old pope saw ruins of houses and churches in a square that was the old town’s thriving center before Mosul was occupied by Islamic State from 2014 to 2017. He sat surrounded by skeletons of buildings, dangling concrete staircases, and cratered ancient churches, most too dangerous to enter.

“Together we say no to fundamentalism. No to sectarianism and no to corruption,” the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Najeeb Michaeel, told the pope.

Much of the old city was destroyed in 2017 during the bloody battle by Iraqi forces and an international military coalition to drive out Islamic State.

Francis, who on a historic first trip by a pope to Iraq, was visibly moved by the earthquake-like devastation around him. He prayed for all of Mosul’s dead.

“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others – forcibly displaced or killed,” he said.

“Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.”

Intense security has surrounded his trip to Iraq. Military pickup trucks mounted with machine guns escorted his motorcade and plainclothes security men mingled in Mosul with the handles of guns emerging from black backpacks worn on their chests.

In an apparent direct reference to Islamic State, Francis said hope could never be “silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction.”

He then read a prayer repeating one of the main themes of his trip, that it is always wrong to hate, kill or wage war in God’s name.

Residents of Iraqi Christian enclave gather with olive branches and balloons to welcome pope

Fighters of Islamic State, a Sunni militant group that tried to establish a caliphate across the region, ravaged northern Iraq from 2014-2017, killing Christians as well as Muslims who opposed them.

Iraq’s Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, has been particularly devastated by the years of conflict, falling to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million before the US invasion of 2003 and the brutal Islamist militant violence that followed.

Father Raid Adel Kallo, pastor of the destroyed Church of the Annunciation, told how in 2014 he fled with 500 Christian families and how fewer than 70 families are present now.

“The majority have emigrated and are afraid to return,” he said.

“But I live here, with two million Muslims who call me father and I am living my mission with them,” he added, telling the pope of a committee of Mosul families who promote peaceful coexistence among Muslims and Christians.

A Muslim member of the Mosul committee, Gutayba Aagha, urged the Christians who had fled to “return to their properties and resume their activities”.

Francis then flew by helicopter to Qaraqosh, a Christian enclave that was overrun by Islamic State fighters and where families have slowly returned and rebuilt ruined homes.

In Qaraqosh, he received the most tumultuous welcome so far on the trip, with thousands of ecstatic people packing the roadsides to get of glimpse of their religious leader.

Most were not wearing masks despite a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country.Slideshow ( 4 images )

“I can’t describe my happiness, it’s a historic event that won’t be repeated,” said Yosra Mubarak, 33, who was three months pregnant when she left her home seven years ago with her husband and son, fleeing the violence.

Francis has stressed inter-religious peace from the start of his trip on Friday (5 March).

On Saturday (6 March) he held a historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric and visited the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, condemning violence in the name of God as “the greatest blasphemy”.


Iraq’s budget spat masks collaborative corruption




Just a few weeks after Pope Francis made his historic visit to Iraq, marking the first time a bishop of Rome visited the Middle Eastern country and its storied (if dwindling) Christian community, the political wrangling over the Iraqi government’s budget quickly overshadowed any good feelings that might have followed the pontiff’s trip. Last week, after three months of disputes between Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi's government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, Iraq’s parliament finally approved a 2021 budget amidst dueling health and economic crises that have left as much as 40% of the country’s population in poverty, per the World Bank, writes Louis Auge.

In the days ahead of the vote, however, explosive new reporting from Agence France-Press (AFP) revealed the extent to which the public confrontations between Iraq’s different ethnic and sectarian factions hide an almost admirable level of cooperation in defrauding both the Iraqi public purse and just about any trader seeking to bring goods through Iraq’s poorly controlled borders. While Pope Francis called upon Iraq’s leaders to “combat the scourge of corruption, misuse of power and disregard for law,” the AFP discovered that the country’s powerful Shi’ite paramilitary groups, many of whom enjoy close links with neighboring Iran, are siphoning billions of dollars meant for Iraq’s cash-strapped treasury into their own pockets.

Of course, given the experience of French telecoms giant Orange at the hands of Iraq’s authorities, the AFP’s revelations of corruption in Iraqi officialdom likely caused little surprise in Paris, where Emmanuel Macron welcomed Iraqi Kurdistan’s president, Nechirvan Barzani, last week.

Paramilitary cartels make Iraq’s border crossings 'worse than a jungle'

According to the AFP, goods transiting into or out of Iraq are effectively subject to a parallel system, dominated by the Shi’ite militia groups who once fought alongside Iraqi government forces to defeat the Islamic State but which have now resorted to extortion at Iraq’s borders to fund their operations. Collectively known as the Hashd al-Sha’bi or “Popular Mobilization Forces” (PMF), these groups have secured positions for their own members and allies as police, inspectors, and agents at border crossings, and especially at Umm Qasr, Iraq’s only deepwater port. Officials and workers who defy the groups’ control over these facilities are subject to death threats, and government schemes to move personnel between posts have failed to break up the cartel.

Controlling Iraq’s borders has turned out to be a lucrative endeavor for the PMF. As one official told the AFP, operatives are able to demand up to $120,000 a day in bribes for importers and exporters, who are faced with the prospect of interminable delays at the border unless they agree to pay customs agents under the table. The proceeds from these arrangements are diligently divided between the groups making up the cartel, including those ostensibly in direct conflict with one another. To prevent concerted state action against their illicit activities, the cartel is able to rely on its allies within Iraq’s political institutions.

Losing control over its borders has come at a high price for the Iraqi state, with Iraq’s finance minister Ali Allawi admitting Baghdad manages to collect only a tenth of the customs revenues it should otherwise be due. The dynamics of the corruption described by the AFP, in which Iraq’s political and legal institutions are either directly complicit in graft or powerless to stop it, seem to be par for the course for any actor looking to business in the country – as a number of previous foreign investors can attest.

Outsiders are far from immune

France’s Orange, for example, is currently suing the Iraqi government in a $400 million case currently being heard by the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in Washington. In 2011, Orange and Kuwaiti logistics firm Agility undertook a joint $810 million investment in Iraq’s Korek Telecom. A mere two years after their initial investment, and just before their joint venture was slated to take majority ownership of Korek, Iraq’s Communications and Media Commission (CMC) decided to revoke Orange and Agility’s shares in the company and hand control of Korek back to its previous owners, all without any restitution to two of Iraq’s most prominent outside investors.

In the time since, revelations from outlets including the Financial Times and France’s Libération have fueled allegations that Korek’s current owners – namely Sirwan Barzani, a cousin of President Nechirvan Barzani – corrupted members of the CMC ahead of their decision to “expropriate” Orange and Agility. Unable to secure restitution through Iraqi courts, Orange thus turned to the ICSID in October of last year, a step its partner Agility took in 2017.

Ruling on Agility’s case, the ICSID tribunal composed of attorneys Cavinder Bull, John Beechey, and Sean Murphy found in favor of Iraq and against the company this past February, indicating trouble on the horizon for Orange as its own complaint goes before the body. In its response to the ICSID decision, Agility decried the ICSID panel for denying “requests for protection of the identity of its Iraqi witnesses,” pointing out the company’s employees were subjected to arbitrary detention and threats by Iraqi police during the proceedings.

Those allegations echo the AFP’s reporting about the corruption of Iraqi police forces and Iraq’s judiciary, with Iraqi attorneys telling the news service that “with one phone call, elected representatives, officials can make a judge drop the charges against them, either with a threat or by paying a bribe.” Having survived mass anticorruption protests in 2019 and demonstrated their ability to thwart the work of international legal bodies, it appears Iraq’s political class and its constellation of paramilitary forces may have little to fear beyond each other – and, of course, admonishments from the Pope.

A spokesperson for Korek said: “A number of seriously false and defamatory allegations have been made by Agility and Orange as part of a campaign to destroy Korek through a scorched earth strategy of multiple litigations and arbitrations.

“Korek believes that Agility and Orange have been grossly misrepresenting and mischaracterising facts while acting against the best interests of Korek and its shareholders.

“So far, Orange and Agility have not succeeded in any of their claims and Mr. Barzani will continue to vigorously defend himself in all of these proceedings.  Mr. Barzani has acted and will continue to act in the best interests of Korek, its stakeholders, and the people of Kurdistan and Iraq.”

Photograph: Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Photograph by the Media Office of the Prime Minister of Iraq, Creative Commons License 2.5.

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Middle-East religions have chance to march together against the fierce opponents of peace

Guest contributor



Our father, Abraham, has had a lot on his plate lately — always for the good of humanity, as is his habit. “Lech lecha,” the Creator commanded him, “go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you,” writes Fiamma Nirenstein.

From that time on, the adventure of monotheism began. Unfortunately, the task was left to Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, whose eternal dispute has relentlessly pursued us to this day.

Pope Francis bravely went to Syria on Friday (5 March) — to Mosul, Najaf and Ur — where he led a prayer reminding attendees of Abraham’s message: that God is invisible, infinite and very close; full of love towards and demands of man, foremost among them to live in peace.

Peace is a moral attribute of monotheism, the son of Judaism, as well as the founder of what has come to be called the “human spirit,” which includes Christianity and Islam.

Pope Francis’s meeting with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a key spiritual leader of Iraqi Shiite Muslims was significant. After years of atrocities committed against Christians at the hands of ISIS particularly and by political Islam in general, he traveled from Rome to the Middle East to talk to the most suitable of interlocutors among Shiites, who have not only traditionally suffered as a poor minority within the Sunni-majority Islamic world, but today—due to the regime in Tehran—represent the thorniest current issues: imperialism, uranium enrichment and the persecution of minorities.

Yet Sistani is a notable exception. A balanced character, he was born in Iran but significantly distant from his homeland, which is dominated by a group of Khomeinists who, according to Islamic religious law, will become the recognized leaders—only with the coming of the Mahdi, Imam Hussein—of the world’s redemption.

He is a moderate, cautious with politicians, but powerful within his community. He tried to placate the former after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a combined force of troops from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland, while also attempting to contain attacks against Americans. He pushed hard, as well, for the war against ISIS. Moreover, he maintains a relationship with Iran without demonstrating devotion to it.

Pope Francis has studied this situation well. Just as he connected with the Sunnis in 2019—signing the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” (also known as the “Abu Dhabi Declaration”) with the Grand Iman of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb—he has now found the appropriate Shiite partner to help him protect Christians in the name of Abraham.

The Pope’s invoking of Abraham comes on the heels of another historical event: Israel’s signing of the US-brokered Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and subsequent normalization agreements with Sudan and Morocco — Muslim-majority states traditionally hostile to the Jewish state.

Today, he is inspired by the ecumenical father of the three monotheistic religions to design a future of peace in which the Christians of the Middle East who have suffered immensely are included. As he knows full well, in pre-2003 Iraq, there were more than 1.5 million Christians; less than 200,000 remain. The situation is similar in Syria, where the Christian population has dropped from 2 million to less than 700,000, as a result of expulsion and murder by Muslim terrorists.

Though even while repeating Abraham’s name during his visit, the Pope didn’t mention the fact that Jews have also been persecuted by Muslims in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the peaceful tectonic upheaval that brought the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to accept Israel and the Jewish people as indigenous to the region—is still a train in motion. And it is producing results close to his description of Abraham as one who “knew how to hope against all hope,” and who laid the groundwork for “the human family.”

The revolutionary notion of people’s common interest in the future of their children, as well as for good relations and civil progress exhibited in the Abraham Accords, is a genuine example of how peace must be undertaken: not only between leaders, but among peoples. Indeed, the treaty was immediately welcomed warmly by Jews and Muslims in the countries in question; it was not merely a matter of bureaucracy spurred by calculated cold-blooded interests.

It has been amazing to observe the flurry of contacts between Muslims and Jews that have been developing during the past few months in every field. The passion for the realization of Abraham’s envisioned peace, forbidden for decades by the Palestinian and Iranian veto, is tangible in the enthusiasm brought about by the thousands of trade deals, collaborative scientific efforts and human exchanges, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pope Francis’s sojourn to Iraq illustrates another facet of Abraham’s work in action. We can only hope that the path he has cleared will be equally fruitful. It’s a pity that the Iraqi government ignored the country’s Jews in this context, against Vatican hopes, by not inviting a Jewish delegation to the event. It was a dismissal of Jewish history and expulsion from Muslim countries, along with their synagogues and traditions, by the hundreds of thousands.

During his interreligious prayer for peace in Ur, the Pope thanked the Lord for having given Abraham to Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with other believers. Despite the absence of an official Jewish delegation, there was in attendance their most famous representative, Avraham Avinu (“Our father, Abraham”).

Now, with the solidification of the Abraham pacts, the three religions have the opportunity to march together against the fierce opponents of peace, ranging from ISIS to Al-Qaeda, from Hamas to Hezbollah, and to all the states that support them, first and foremost Iran.

Maybe the Pope’s meeting with and message to al-Sistani indicates that he understands the need to summon Abraham spiritually, the way in which Israel and its peace partners have done through concrete action.

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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Britain, France, Germany, Italy and US condemn Iraq attack in joint statement





Britain issued a joint statement with France, Germany, Italy and the United States to condemn the 15 February attacks on US-led forces in northern Iraq. “We the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America condemn in the strongest terms the February 15 rocket attack in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. We offer our condolences to the victims, their families, and the Iraqi people,” the statement on Wednesday (17 February) said, writes Sarah Young.

"Together, our governments will support the government of Iraq’s investigation into the attack with a view to holding accountable those responsible."

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