Pope Francis attends an audience with President of Iraq Barham Ahmed Salih at the Apostolic Palace on November 24 2018 in Vatican City Vatican (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Pope Francis to plan first ever papal trip to ​Iraq

News

Pope Francis said on Monday he wants to travel to Iraq next year, which would be the first ever papal trip there, Reuters reported.

Why it matters: Iraq's conflicts since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and the spillover from the Syrian war have led to a dramatic decrease in the country's Christian population.

What's happening: Iraqi Christians trace their presence back to Christianity's founding, and they preserve ancient customs including the Aramaic languages, which some Christian villages in Iraq and Syria still consider their mother tongues. Caught between repressive, apathetic or hostile governments and a Sunni Islamist insurgency, Iraq's Christians have suffered persecution, death and exile.

  • Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, there were 1.5 to 2 million Christians living in Iraq.
  • Today, the number is about 200,000, according to the documentary Christian in the Mirror, which premiered in Washington, DC on June 10, 2019.

Between the lines: The first papal trip to Iraq is all but certain, despite Pope Francis' willingness. In 2000, the late Pope John Paul wanted to visit the ancient Iraqi city of Ur, traditionally held to be the birthplace of Abraham. But negotiations with the government of then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein broke down and he was unable to go, Reuters reported.

What's next: If Iraqi Christians all but disappear, the loss for Iraq goes beyond the immediate loss of life to the identity of the country. Iraq will no longer be seen as a culturally diverse society, home to ancient religions and rich cultures.

Go deeper: Syrian Christian Perspectives on the War

A general view shows the Syrian flag flying in front of the Syrian Saint Sarkis Church for Armenian Orthodox as Armenians celebrate Christmas in Damascus on January 6, 2015. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

Exclusive: Syria war is driving Armenians back into exile

Analysis

The Associated Press reported yesterday that Armenia sent a team of experts to Syria to help clear mines and provide medical assistance. That this team will be based in Aleppo in northern Syria is no coincidence. Before the war, Aleppo was home to 110,000 ethnic Armenians, one of the world's largest Armenian diasporas.

The big picture: About 22,000 ethnic Armenians have moved to Armenia since the start of the war in 2011. An additional 12,000 headed to Europe, America and Russia. Most are from Aleppo and some from the area controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria, Alexandre Goodarzy, the chief of mission for Syria at SOS Chrétiens d'Orient, a non-governmental organization providing relief services in Syria, told Shout! News.

Details: The neighborhood where ethnic Armenians live in Aleppo is called Midan. While in the Syrian government-controlled western Allepo, during most of the war Midan sat on the front line with rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo. But the territorial demarcation of Midan was also disputed by Kurdish armed forces on the northwest side of the neighborhood and by al Qaida's affiliated Jabhat al Nusra on the northeast side. Therefore, Midan's inhabitants were being shelled by both Kurdish forces and Jabhat al Nusra.

As a result, from all the Christian communities in Aleppo, ethnic Armenians suffered the most from shelling and bombardments.

Why it matters: Ethnic Armenian numbers decreased considerably because of the war. Their presence in Aleppo dates back many centuries. But Midan's Armenians came as a result of the genocide that took place during last century's two World Wars. There presence increased Allepo's population by 25%.

The impact: Bringing ethnic Armenians back to Syria will be a challenge, Goodarzy from SOS Chrétiens d'Orient said. They will likely not return, and those in Armenia might not stay either, because of the catastrophic economy there, he said.

A veiled woman living in alHol camp which houses relatives of Islamic State group members sits next to her child in the camp in al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria on March 28, 2019. (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)
News

These are the latest countries to repatriate their Islamic State-affiliated citizens

It is estimated that the Syrian Democratic Forces have custody of more than 9,000 foreign citizens affiliated with the Islamic State. They are from around 60 other countries.

United States

Two American women who were detained for Islamic State links in Syria have been repatriated to the U.S. together with their six children, the second such transfer between the two countries since the defeat of the terror group's caliphate, the Independent reported.

France

Last month, France repatriated five young children from camps in northern Syria, which are home to tens of thousands of Islamic State families, French media reported.

Why it matters: Repatriation of women and children affiliated with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has been the least controversial. Children of foreign Islamic State fighters in Syria are "among world's most vulnerable" and should be brought home, says the United Nations.

Yes, but: Government officials from the Islamic State-affiliated citizens' countries of origin worry about the security risk these children can pose. For example, the British government has so far refused to repatriate any of its citizens who went to join the Islamic State, citing security fears. Shout! News learned of similar security concerns from a Belgian diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.


Clockwise from top left, French nationals Vianney Ouraghi, Salim Machou, Mustapha Merzoughi, Brahim Nejara, Leonard Lopez, Yassine Sakkam, Kevin Gonot and Fodil Tahar Aouidate, all sentenced by a Baghdad court to death for joining the Islamic State. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
News

Iraq condemns French Islamic State supporters to death

Iraqi terrorism courts sentenced 11 French citizens and one French resident to death for support of the Islamic State, the New York Times reported. The French government claimed it reiterated its opposition to capital punishment to the Iraqi government. However, prominent French defense lawyers signed a letter that blasted the government, saying it violated the constitution by risking the execution of its citizens.

Driving the news: The fate of citizens from France and other Western countries in Iraqi courts where they face the death penalty for joining the Islamic State is under scrutiny. Should those Western countries that ban capital punishment pressure Iraqi courts to try to get death sentences commuted?

Why it matters: There could be more cases to come. There are some 450 French citizens in camps in Syria who joined the Islamic State, according to France's Foreign Ministry.

What they're saying: Judge Ahmed Mohamed Ali, who heard all 12 cases, said that the French who joined the Islamic State played a special role by legitimizing the organization in the eyes of the world, and that what it did in Syria reverberated in Iraq. "[The Islamic State] wanted to be an international organization and thousands of Syrians and Iraqis joined it," Mr. Ali said. "That had an impact on Iraq." "The foreigners — the Belgians, the French — they came and created legitimacy for this organization."

Go deeper: What will the President do?

Home Secretary of the United Kingdom Sajid Javid (Getty Images)
News

As the Syrian conflict drags on, UK bans its citizens from Syria

Under a new law, British citizens going to terror hotspots face 10 years in jail, The Guardian reported. The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 creates a criminal offense of entering or remaining in "designated area" overseas.

The designated areas: So far, the British government has yet to identify designated areas. Asked by the House of Commons which areas were being considered, Home Secretary Sajid Javid said his designation will be subject to parliamentary debate and approval:

"Of course we are [looking at designated areas]. In anticipation of the Bill becoming an Act, we had already commenced some work on that. It would not be appropriate at this point for me to say which areas we looked at specifically—for an area to be designated, it has to come before the House and it has to be the will of the House to designate that area, and I do not want to prejudge that."

Sajid Javid

The Home Secretary later mentioned Syria, with a focus on the city of Idlib and the north-east region. It is not clear whether areas controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces will be included or not.

Details: In an explanatory note, the Home Office said that the act will not be retrospective, but a person already in a designated area at the time of designation will have to leave the area within one month. The law also contains a number of exempted purposes for traveling to designated areas, such as humanitarian aid and journalism.

The big picture: 900 individuals of national security concern from the UK have travelled to engage with the conflict in Syria, the Home Office said. About 40% of these individuals are still in Syria.

Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian democracy and human rights advocate, exits the Canadian embassy on August 8, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Interviews

Interview: The Syrian Army disappeared completely

Radwan Ziadeh, a scholar and human rights activist who founded the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies in Syria told Shout! News that only a liberal democracy can work for Syria and accommodate the country's various religious and ethnic communities.

Mr. Ziadeh is a critic of what he sees as the current Syrian Kurds leadership's "imagined identity." Syria's 8% Kurdish minority can't replicate northern Iraq's self-governance, where the Kurds make up one third of the country. From the late 1960s onward, Mr. Ziadeh said, Syria's Kurds went through persecution, indiscriminate Arabisation and an extreme policy that forbade the use of their language and the celebration of their holidays. Yet, they have significantly contributed to Syria's political life, notably by providing seven presidents and prime ministers. There will be no room for identity politics if Syria's Kurds are granted full rights.

Highlights from the interview:

  • The international community is lacking a common response to the 5 to 6 million Syrians displaced by the war. In this vacuum, recipient countries have come up with their own policy, which is adversely affected by the rise in populism and is beyond the capacity of any country.
  • Syrian refugees who return home are not safe. Out of the 400 refugees who recently returned to Syria from Germany, 35 are missing, for example. In addition, studies show that refugees settle in their host country past the third year.
  • Only a liberal democracy can accommodate the religious and ethnic communities that make up Syria, such as the Druzes, Armenians, Kurds and Assyrian Christians.
  • There won't be any successful mechanics the international community can design to attract the Syrian government to deal with the opposition. Why would the regime negotiate now when it never negotiated in hard time. There isn't any rationality in its approach anyway.
  • The Syrian Army disappeared completely. In 2015, 2016 and 2017, local militias leaders where given full power to suppress the opposition by any means and at any cost: barrel bombs, siege, crimes based on gender and ethnicity. This policy empowered local leaders. They have proven that they could suppress the opposition and will not accept to negotiate their power away.
  • The U.S. has become irrelevant in the resolution of the conflict. The kind of U.S. strategy required for Syria right now can't be developed by the Trump administration. The Secretary of State can't initiate a long-term strategy without the risk of being reversed or challenged by the president's tweets. As a result, the U.S. strategy continues to be in limbo, leaving the initiative to Russia and Iran.
(Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Analysis

U.S. to leave a residual military force in Syria

Trump administration's special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey claimed at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that the president had never intended a comprehensive troop withdrawal, but instead to leave a residual force in northern Syria.

Why it matters: Jeffrey's statement is another departure from President Trump's order, announced in December, that all 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria would leave, since their mission to destroy the Islamic State caliphate, in his view, had been achieved.

  • Jeffrey claimed since the U.S. could not get other members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State to agree to replace all of American forces in northeast Syria, the president decided to slow down the withdrawal and leave a residual force.
  • Yet, Jeffrey also said the administration wants other coalition members to bear the cost of stabilizing Syria: "We are shifting the focus from an exclusively American funded largely American boots on the ground to a more balanced one...It is burden sharing."

The big picture: Both the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to prevent its Kurdish partners from establishing an independent state in Syria. They also have had to take into consideration the position of Turkey, another ally in the fight against the Islamic State, for whom Syrian Kurdish forces are one and the same with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a group designated as a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington. Nevertheless, Jeffrey said in the hearing that the United States would stand by its Kurdish allies in northern Syria, as evidenced by the residual U.S. force to remain in Syria.

Go deeper: Interview: Trump left a tripwire military presence in Syria