Either way, infection rates are still high in the occupied territories and vaccination rates are low — and that has limited the number of Palestinian Christians granted permission to enter Jerusalem for Easter this year. A spokesperson for the Israeli government declined to reveal the final number.

“Without permits, we cannot come,” said the Rev. Jamal Khader, the Roman Catholic parish priest in Ramallah. “It’s a sign of the continuous presence of occupation and the limitations on movement.”

But Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection still provide spiritual nourishment for a despondent population, said Father Khader, who is allowed to enter Jerusalem through his work with the church.

“We identify with the sufferings of Christ on Good Friday,” he said.

“Then,” he added, “we find some hope on Easter Sunday.”

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Pope Francis Ends Historic Trip at a Critical Moment for Iraq

ERBIL, Iraq — Pope Francis concluded on Monday a trip to Iraq that made history with every step and demonstrated that Iraq, still beset by violence and recovering from decades of war and mismanagement, was able to pull off a visit that would have posed a challenge for any country.

“It’s huge. It’s huge,” President Barham Salih told The New York Times about the importance of the visit after seeing Francis off at Baghdad airport. “I am not underestimating the challenges facing Iraq, but the visit by the pope was a remarkable affirmation of the essence of these values of tolerance and coexistence that are deeply rooted in Iraqi society,” said Mr. Salih, who is Kurdish.

For Iraqi officials, the visit was an affirmation of the country’s importance in the region, after years of isolation by Sunni Arab countries because of Iraq’s Shiite majority leadership. It was also a support for leaders who have expressed concern about how sectarian and political divisions have weakened the country.

The stops on the 84-year-old pontiff’s four-day trip illustrated the hollowing out of the historic religious diversity in a land seen as the birthplace of monotheistic religions; a country badly scarred by sectarian violence and the legacy of the Islamic State’s brutal takeover of parts of northern Iraq and Syria.

Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy killed when his family’s rubber dinghy capsized between Turkey and Greece. The photo of the small boy’s body washed up on a beach in Greece helped focus attention on the plight of refugees and migrants desperate to reach Europe.

Iraqi officials said they hoped to start an ongoing interreligious dialogue, but acknowledged the difficulties ahead.

“The pope, he cannot make a miracle ,” said Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the Iraqi Christian leader whom France promoted in 2018. “We sows the seeds, but we have to water them, and God will bless them and let them grow.”

Jason Horowitz contributed reporting.

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Amid the Rubble of Mosul, Francis Offers a Salve for Iraq’s Wounds

MOSUL, Iraq — After the Islamic State took control of Mosul seven years ago and declared it the capital of its caliphate, the terrorist group sought to strike fear deep into the West by vowing to conquer Rome.

But with the Islamic State pushed from the city, it was Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who on Sunday came to Mosul. In an extraordinary moment on the last full day of the first papal trip to Iraq, Francis went to the wounded heart of the country, directly addressing the suffering, persecution and sectarian conflict that have torn the nation apart.

“Now Rome has come here,” Ghazwan Yousif Baho, a local priest who invited Francis to Mosul, said as he awaited the pope’s arrival. “He will bring his blessing to spread peace and brotherhood. It’s the beginning of a new era.”

Francis is the first to make the trip. In doing so, he has sought to protect an ancient but battered and shrunken Christian community, build relations with the Muslim world and reassert himself on the global stage after being grounded for more than a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

ISIS expelled those who remained. Only about 350 Christians have returned since ISIS was driven out in 2017 — almost all of them to the more prosperous east side, which suffered far less damage.

“I especially welcome, then, your invitation to the Christian community to return to Mosul,” said Francis, who has praised young volunteers, Muslim and Christian, working to rebuild churches and mosques.

“I am sure it will be a first step for them to come back,” said Anas Zeyad, a Muslim engineer who is part of an international project to rebuild the churches. He said that Christians who had fled the city “have memories, they have Muslim friends, they have homes here.”

After praying for the dead, and for the repentance of their killers, Francis, who suffers from sciatica and limps heavily, took a golf cart to the Syriac Catholic church that ISIS had used as a courthouse. On the way, he passed a cartoon mural of three girls at play, their faces blacked out. ISIS forbid depictions of people and animals.

“We were living here in Mosul, all together, Christians, Muslims,” said Rana Bazzoiee, 37, a pediatric surgeon, who fled Mosul in ahead of the ISIS takeover in 2014. She said that, while a semblance of normalcy had returned to the city, the pope’s visit could improve things further. “Why not?” she said. “We lived together for a long time in Mosul.”

In his whirlwind trip, Francis has sought to make significant progress in tightening bonds between his church and the Muslim world. On Saturday, the country’s most powerful and reclusive Shiite, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, met with the pope and released a statement stressing that Christian citizens deserved to “live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.”

Francis called for brotherhood at a meeting of minorities on the desert plains of Ur, what tradition holds is the homeland of Abraham, revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.

Two earlier popes had tried and failed to visit Christians in Iraq, but it was Francis, who as pontiff has prioritized reaching out to the marginalized and forgotten, who succeeded.

On Sunday afternoon, the faithful in Qaraqosh, the largest town of the Ninevah Plains that are Iraq’s Christian heartland, thanked him for it. They lined the streets outside the al-Tahira Syriac Catholic Church, clapping and ululating as his vehicle approached.

Residents of Qaraqosh have spent the past three months preparing the town for the pope’s arrival and the past four years repairing the damage done by ISIS. For many, Francis’ visit was a chance to celebrate the community’s survival.

A young priest holding a scarf danced in the street near the church while a group of white-robed nuns on a rooftop held brightly colored balloons. Women and girls wearing traditional Christian dress, with brightly colored wraps embroidered with scenes of church and home life, waved olive branches.

Hundreds crowded into the church, prompting one Vatican official to complain to Iraqi organizers that there was not sufficient space between people in the pews. Masks were often disregarded. But the coronavirus seemed the least of attendants’ worries.

Qaraqosh, just 20 miles from Mosul, was overtaken by the Islamic State in 2014 and held for three years before being liberated by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. Its 50,000 residents fled when ISIS arrived, and those who returned found burned and looted houses and badly damaged churches. About half the pre-2014 population never came back.

ISIS had turned many homes into car bomb factories — including that of Edison Stefo, a school principal who was among the parishioners waiting in the church.

He said he hoped the pope’s visit would encourage Christians to return.

“This is like a dream,” Mr. Stefo said. “We feel like he is one of us — that he is from our area and knows what we went through.”

The pope ended the day by celebrating Mass at a stadium in Erbil. In the days leading up to the visit, as coronavirus infections spiked in Iraq and concerns grew about potential crowds, the Vatican insisted that all events would be socially distanced and safe.

But priests organized trips to the Mass, packing buses with parishioners. More than 10,000 people, many in white hats emblazoned with the pope’s face, entered the stadium. They hummed along with chants and expressed joy and relief that a pope had finally come to find them.

Calling himself “a pilgrim in your midst,” Francis concluded the last public event of his trip, which ends on Monday when he returns to Rome. “Today,” he said. “I can see at first hand that the church in Iraq is alive.”

Sangar Khaleel contributed reporting from Erbil, Iraq.

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Pope Francis Meets Iraq’s Top Ayatollah as Both Urge Peace

UR, Iraq — First Pope Francis showed up at the modest residence of Iraq’s most reclusive, and powerful, Shiite religious cleric for a delicate and painstakingly negotiated summit. Hours later, he presided over a stage crowded with religious leaders on the windswept Plain of Ur, a vast and, now arid, expanse where the faithful believe God revealed himself to the Prophet Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.

In settings both intimate and theatrical, in gestures both concrete and symbolic, Pope Francis on Saturday sought to protect his persecuted flock by forging closer bonds between the Roman Catholic Church and the Muslim world, a mission that is a central theme of his papacy and of his historic trip to Iraq.

By meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, Francis threaded a political needle, seeking an alliance with an extraordinarily influential Shiite cleric who, unlike his Iranian counterparts, believes that religion should not govern the state.

There is a fear among many Iraqi Christians, who as recently as the mid-20th century made up about 10 percent of the population, that they may face the same fate. Between 2003, the year of the U.S.-led invasion, and 2010, more than half of Iraq’s Christians left the country, leaving about 500,000 from a high of as possibly many as 1.4 million.

In 2014, the expansion of the Islamic State, or ISIS, led to more persecution and migration, and Christians today constitute little more than one percent of the population.

As strong winds across the Ur Plains lifted the red carpets in the air and blew sand over a small crowd and several empty seats, Francis made an unadulterated cry for peace and brotherly love. In doing so, he realized a dream harbored by John Paul II, who had tried to come here 20 years ago and “wept,” Francis has said, when political tensions forced him to cancel.

Francis argued that “the greatest blasphemy is to profane” God’s name “by hating our brothers and sisters.”

“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion,” he added. “We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings.”

He referred to himself and the others as “descendants of Abraham and the representatives of different religions,” and said that, like “the great Patriarch, we need to take concrete steps” toward peace.

Later Saturday, Francis delivered a sermon at the Chaldean Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, invoking similar themes of common good. “Love is our strength,” he told the crowded congregation, and as he walked out of the cathedral people chanted, “Viva, viva Papa!”

Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako called the pope’s visit “a turning point in Christian-Muslim relations.”

In 2019 in Abu Dhabi, Francis signed a joint declaration on human fraternity with Sunni leaders from Al-Azhar University and Mosque in Cairo, one of the major centers of Sunni Islamic learning. His efforts this time to add Shiites to the equation by meeting with Ayatollah Sistani in Shia-majority Iraq upset some Sunni officials.

A senior Iraqi official said the Pope agreed to a brief meeting Friday that had not been previously scheduled with Mohammed al-Halbousi, the speaker of Iraq’s Parliament and a Sunni Muslim Arab, to assuage the concerns of many in the sect that their concerns were being ignored. t. Vatican officials on Saturday evening confirmed the meeting took place.

But it was the Shiites who were Francis’ focus Saturday and the thrust of his trip, officially themed “You Are All Brothers.”

“It is a way to find again a deep sense of unity that must exist between these three religions and of the collaboration that must be created between members of these religions,” Cardinal Parolin said.

Najaf is the site of the tomb of Imam Ali, considered by Shiite Muslims the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. The shrine was closed to pilgrims for the first time in years because of the pope’s visit.

The pope walked down an alley barely wide enough for his entourage near the ayatollah’s home. Makeshift electricity lines dangled from the houses, some with windows covered by bent metal bars. There was no cheering or singing. But in many ways the meeting between Francis and Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric was one of the most critical aspects of the pontiff’s whirlwind tour of Iraq.

The two elders, Ayatollah Sistani, 90 and clad in black robes, and Francis, 84, in his white cassock, each the highest religious authority among their followers and both in stockinged feet — sat across from one another on a small table adorned with a tissue box. Neither was pictured wearing a mask. Francis is vaccinated. Ayatollah Sistani is not. His office said he believes vaccination is religiously permitted but he did not want to jump in front of others.

The Vatican, in its statement about the meeting, said the pope had thanked the cleric “for speaking up — together with the Shiite community — in defense of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships.”

The visit signaled to Shiite Muslim leaders that Christians are to be respected.

Although Ayatollah Sistani is Iranian-born, his pronouncements on Iraq carry great weight. He has been able to set elections in motion, and his withdrawal of support for Iraq’s previous prime minister, whom he felt was failing the people, left the prime minister little choice but to resign.

Ayatollah Sistani’s 2014 religious edict urging able-bodied men to join the security forces to combat the Islamic State group resulted in a recruiting boom for Shiite militias, many closely tied to Iran. But unlike his rival, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Sistani believes in a separation between politics and religion — as long as politics does not break Islamic tenets. He is in some ways an ideal interlocutor for Francis: holy, credible and powerful. His decisions carry weight.

The meeting between the two religious leaders ran longer than expected. A statement released by Ayatollah Sistani’s office said the cleric had stressed that Christian citizens deserve to “live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.”

Jason Horowitz reported from Ur, Jane Arraf from Erbil.

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Francis Begins Visit to Iraq, in ‘Duty to a Land Martyred’

BAGHDAD — Pope Francis made an audacious return to the world stage in the midst of the pandemic on Friday when he became the first leader of the Roman Catholic church to visit Iraq, seeking to help heal a nation uniquely wounded by violent sectarianism, foreign adventurism and the persecution of minority populations, including his own Christian flock.

“I’m happy to travel again,” Francis, who has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, said after taking off his blue surgical mask to address reporters on the papal plane. The 84-year-old pontiff, who suffers from sciatica, was limping noticeably as he walked off the plane and past a line of young people singing in languages including Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

By choosing Iraq and its war-torn — and now Covid-threatened — lands as his first destination, Francis plunged directly into the issues of war and peace, poverty, and religious strife in an ancient and biblical land. His trip is explicitly designed to deepen ties to Shiite Muslims and encourage a decimated Christian population.

Francis instead seemed determined to go no matter what on a trip that on Friday he called “long-awaited and desired.” To highlight and touch the wounds of his church, Francis went on Friday afternoon to Our Lady of Salvation, a Syriac Catholic church where Islamic militants staged a harrowing attack in 2010, slaughtering 58 people in what was the worst atrocity against Iraqi Christians since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.

“Four people from ISIS came in here, one from that side, another this way,” said Qais Michael Bernard, 58, who acted as an usher at the church on Friday. After so many Christians had left Baghdad and the country since then, he welcomed the pope’s presence. “It’s good,” he said. “Makes people stay here.”

Light streamed in through the colored stripes of stained glass, falling on the masked priests, nuns and seminarians, distanced three to a pew. As the pope walked in, making the sign of the cross, the church erupted in ululations and traditional music. “The pope has come, the pope has come!” some of them chanted.

Francis limped down the red-carpeted central nave, and took a seat on a wooden throne before the altar. There, as a woman wept quietly in a back pew, he listened to local bishops remind him of the 2010 massacre and the wider persecution of Christians in the country.

But Francis needed no reminding.

“We are gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price,” Francis said, under a large framed photograph of one of the young priests killed in the attack. He added, “Their deaths are a powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic religious teachings.”

Earlier in the day, speaking at the presidential palace, Francis recalled that “Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups.”

He added, “How much we have prayed in these years for peace in Iraq!”

On arrival at the palace, Francis stood outside with Iraqi President Barham Salih as a marching band played. He then went inside and acknowledged in a speech that his visit coincided with the world “trying to emerge from the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The pope called for an equitable distribution of vaccines to countries already scarred by “fragility and instability.” A vaccination program began just this week in Iraq, where social distancing restrictions are largely ignored.

Francis recalled to Iraq’s leaders the “age-old presence of Christians in this land,” which traces back to nearly the beginning of the faith, and suggested that their protection and engagement in the country’s future were indicators of the health of Iraq’s democracy.

Christianity took root in the region within decades of the death of Jesus. There are more than a dozen Christian sects throughout Iraq.

On Saturday, Francis will achieve an unrealized dream of Pope John Paul II, praying at a major interreligious event in Ur, the ancient city that tradition holds was the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Outreach to Islam is central to Francis’ mission, but so is heartening Christians who have endured so much.

The Rev. Thabet Almako, a priest at the St. Adday church in the town of Karamles, which was overrun by the Islamic State, said he and about 25 members of his church choir would take a bus together to Mosul, where they planned to sing, at a distance, for the pope. About 90 Christians from his town hoped to attend an open-air Mass with about 5,000 faithful in Erbil on Sunday.

“He will push to make progress,” Father Almako said, noting that many of the people in the area, including his own family, had left the country. He said he hoped that the arrival of the pope would reverse that trend and “attract the people back.”

“We hope the reconstruction will be completed in our towns, that the pope’s visit will change the situation all around Iraq,” he said.

In the mid-20th century, Christians made up about ten percent of the Iraqi population.

The American invasion, which the Vatican strongly opposed, proved disastrous for the country’s Christians. (“I come as a penitent,” Francis said Friday. “Asking forgiveness of heaven and my brothers and sisters for so much destruction and cruelty.”)

Between 2003 and 2010, more than half of Iraq’s Christians left the country, leaving about 500,000 from a high of as possibly many as 1.4 million.

In 2014, the expansion of the Islamic State, or ISIS, represented a new and terrifying threat to Christians and other minorities. In Mosul, ISIS marked the homes of Christians and wrote “Property of the Islamic State of Iraq.” They required Christians to either convert to Islam or pay a special tax and then expelled them from the city altogether.

Iraq’s Christians largely sought safe haven in the Kurdish capitol, Erbil, where they lived for months in tents in church courtyards and makeshift shelters in construction sites. Many have not returned to the communities they fled, in the country’s north amid the flat farmlands of the Nineveh Plans east of Mosul.

The displaced Christians, along with other Iraqis, have had trouble making a living in the country’s devastated economy. In despair over a lack of future for their families, hundreds of thousands have emigrated to the United States, Canada and other Western countries. Thousands more remain in limbo in Turkey and Jordan, waiting to be resettled.

Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis who was traveling with the pope, said the visit was clearly one of solidarity with persecuted Christians, but also with the objective to convince the faithful “not to abandon the country.”

Or to disappear, as Christians today constitute little more than one percent of the population.

“Of course this is our fear,” said the Rev. Karam Qasha, a priest in Iraq, who added that just seeing the pope praying with Christians in Iraq would show the Muslim majority “we are here.”

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In Pictures: Pope Francis in Iraq

Pope John Paul II had to cancel plans to visit Iraq at the turn of this century as escalating tensions with the United States undermined negotiations with Saddam Hussein for a papal visit. Pope Benedict XVI had to cancel his plans because of security concerns.

And almost until the moment he boarded the papal plane in Rome en route to Baghdad on Friday, the Vatican cautioned that the visit by Pope Francis could be called off at any time.

But despite concerns about the coronavirus and a precarious security situation — with a military base in northern Iraq targeted by a missile strike two days before his scheduled departure — Francis held firm in his desire to visit the long-suffering and fading Christian community in the war-torn nation.

Francis has set an ambitious agenda that will take him from the Plains of Nineveh, where Christianity traces its roots back about 2,000 years, to the northern region of Kurdistan, where his three-day trip culminates on Sunday evening with an outdoor Mass for thousands at Franso Hariri soccer stadium in Erbil.

Christians waited for Pope Francis at Baghdad International Airport on Friday, above, as buses brought in other faithful, below.

Pope Francis waving to the crowd upon his arrival in Baghdad.

Outside the presidential palace on Friday in Baghdad, where Pope Francis will meet with President Barham Salih.

Francis arriving at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. The church was the site of a 2010 Qaeda attack that accelerated an exodus of Christians from Iraq.

A poster promoting the trip of Pope Francis in Erbil, Iraq.

Preparations before the pope’s trip have been ongoing, including at Al-Tahira church in Qaraqosh, below.

Sewing the flag of Vatican City at a printing house in Erbil.

Security members from the prime minister’s office carrying out precautionary measures inside St. Joseph’s Church.

A police officer standing guard outside the Chaldean Catholic Church of St. Joseph in Baghdad.

A joint Kurdish and Christian orchestra and choir rehearsing at a stadium in the Kurdish town of Erbil on Monday.

Repairing the Grand Immaculate Church in Qaraqosh before the pope’s visit.

A piece of graffiti depicting Pope Francis on concrete walls surrounding Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad.

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Why Is Pope Francis Visiting Iraq?

[Follow our live updates on the pope’s visit to Iraq.]

Pope Francis begins a three-day whirlwind tour of Iraq on Friday, despite worries that he could draw large crowds at a moment when the coronavirus appears to be resurgent in the country.

Continuing security concerns in a nation ravaged by years of war and conflict were also not enough to deter Pope Francis from fulfilling a promise to visit one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

Such a visit has been the dream of several popes. John Paul II intended to go in 2000, but the trip was canceled as tensions in the region mounted. Benedict XVI was also invited but couldn’t go because of the war.

Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, invited Francis to visit in July 2019, hoping it would help the country heal after years of strife.

including an assault on Wednesday. That is on top of a persistent Islamic State presence two years after the terrorist group lost the last of the territory it controlled there.

The pope will be formally welcomed by Iraq’s head of state, President Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician who previously met Francis in Rome and has made minority rights a priority.

Francis will also meet with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who came to power after the previous prime minister resigned in 2019 amid sweeping antigovernment protests.

The pope’s most highly anticipated official meeting in Iraq will be with Ayatollah Sistani. The ayatollah’s messages, delivered through a representative, carry great weight. And he has changed the course of Iraqi history on issues such as elections.

The papal meeting will be a private one at the ayatollah’s modest home in Najaf. Officials there have said they do not expect any agreement between the two to be signed.

Christianity’s roots in Iraq extend back to the first decades of the faith. The tombs of biblical figures such as Jonah and Joshua are believed to be there.

Iraq’s Christian population was once a vibrant community of various Christian rites — including Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Melkite and Syriac. But it has been culled by persecution, a devastating decade of war after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and then decimation at the brutal hands of the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017.

Many of the country’s surviving Christians fled to Canada, Jordan, Turkey and the United States. For Christians, the pope’s coming to bear witness to their suffering is a powerful show of solidarity.

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In Iraq’s Christian Heartland, a Feud Over a Town’s Identity

BARTELLA, Iraq — Near the entrance to a small town in northern Iraq, a huge, artificial Christmas tree stands year-round as a symbol of the area’s centuries-old Christian character.

But just down the road, a different kind of symbol illustrates the shift underway in the town of Bartella: a poster with Iran’s Islamic revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, gazing down on images of Shiite Muslim fighters who died battling the Islamic State. Nearby, a large iron cross is surrounded by more photos of dead Iraqi fighters, their images often superimposed over pictures of Shiite shrines.

“When you enter, you don’t feel you are entering a Christian area,” said the Rev. Yacoub Saadi, a Syriac Orthodox Christian priest. “You feel you are entering Karbala or Najaf,” he said, referring to the Shiite holy cities in southern Iraq.

As Pope Francis visits Iraq this week in the first ever papal trip to the country, there are growing fears among Christians that the string of ancient Christian towns across northern Iraq are losing their traditional Christian character, and that their faith is in danger of disappearing from the Muslim-majority country.

The steady exodus of Christians that began after the U.S. invasion in 2003 has only accelerated since ISIS was driven out of Iraq in 2017. The pope’s visit is a show of solidarity with the country’s remaining Christians, whose numbers have shrunk to less than one-third of the 1.5 million who lived here in Saddam Hussein’s time.

Bartella is one of about a dozen historically Christian towns on the Nineveh Plains, where the apostle Saint Thomas is said to have converted the polytheistic population just decades after the death of Jesus. Many Christians there still speak a form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

In Bartella, they are now a minority, fewer than 3,000 in a town of 18,000. As in most of Iraq, Shiite Muslims predominate.

But in Bartella, there’s a demographic twist.

The majority there belong to another Iraqi minority, the Shabak, a small ethnic and linguistic group that is waging its own fight for recognition. Although most Shabak are Shiite Muslims, they have also long suffered from efforts to suppress their culture, including during the time of Saddam Hussein.

That leaves church officials in Bartella, in their effort to retain the town’s diminishing Christian identity, effectively discriminating against another marginalized group.

Worried that Christians could be squeezed out of the traditionally Christian town, the Iraqi government granted church officials the authority to approve building projects and land sales.

The church has used that power to halt development projects that could bring in more Shabaks and other non-Christians.

On the edge of town, a construction project that was to include homes, a shopping center and sports center, lies abandoned. Such a project would normally be welcomed in a region with high unemployment and a housing shortage.

“The project was stopped by the church,” said the Rev. Banham Lalo, a Catholic priest. “People from other areas will buy these houses, from Mosul and from Baghdad. It paves the way for demographic change.”

The project’s developer, Duraid Mikhael, a Christian from nearby Erbil, said he had sunk more than $200,000 into the project before he was ordered to stop in November. He said the development would have employed hundreds of workers over three years, most of them from around Bartella.

“I want to develop the Bartella area but they won’t let me work,” he said.

The divisions between the two ethnic groups can become heated and direct, unusual in a country where most officials are careful to minimize differences and to refer to Iraqis of other faiths as “our brothers.”

“The main problem is Shabak officials,” insisted Father Saadi, the Orthodox priest. “They are changing the identity of Bartella.”

The disagreement often boils down to a contest of which minority is the most disadvantaged.

“Christians ask for their rights and they call themselves oppressed but they are not,” said Saad Qado, director of the Voice of Shabak, a local radio station. “We are oppressed. They have everything.”

“I can take you to Shabak villages that don’t have clean water to drink or a hospital even,” he said. “Some of the villages don’t have schools, but no one cares about us.”

While religious conflict has a long history in Iraq, the current tensions in Bartella are rooted in the town’s capture by the Islamic State in 2014. Both Christians and Shiite Muslims there suffered under the rule of the Sunni terrorist group. Many fled.

The Shabak formed a militia that ultimately helped retake the town in 2016. By then much of it was in ruins.

Church officials say the majority of Christians have not returned.

“Many people came back after the liberation from ISIS and when they saw that their houses were burned and looted and destroyed, they decided to emigrate,” Father Lalo said.

In St. George Syriac Catholic Church, a glass case lined with white satin holds a face of the Virgin Mary with her nose broken, burned chalices and a plaster Jesus on the cross broken off at the torso, all reminders of the damage inflicted by the Islamic State.

“If anyone came to Bartella right after the liberation, he would think this city would never come back because of the level of destruction,” said Ali Iskander, a Shabak and chief of the Bartella district, the de factor mayor.

It was then that the Iraqi government, fearing that historic Christian towns could lose their identity, granted church officials in Bartella and another town, Qaraqosh, the power to regulate development. The pope is planning to visit a church in Qaraqosh on Sunday.

Shabak leaders called the special privilege for Christians unfair, saying they suffered at least as much in the fight against the Islamic State. Moreover, Mr. Qado said, it was the Shabak militia that protected Christians and other villagers from ISIS, and now they are being told they cannot buy houses here.

Mr. Iskander said that he has had trouble finding land to build a house for his family of three wives and 16 children.

“I am a mayor and I have three wives,” he said. “Don’t I deserve to live in Bartella?”

He is happy to live side-by-side with Christians. The continued existence of Christians in Bartella, he said, is “like a flower in the desert.”

But where are his rights? he asks.

“I go to Mosul, they tell you ‘you should go to your areas,’” he said. “I come here and there is no land. Where do I build a house? In the sky?”

Large families like his also represent a demographic threat to the town’s Christians.

“Christians get married and they have maybe a son and a daughter,” he said. “But the Shabak have 15 or 20 children. We have people who marry two or three wives and after a few years they become a tribe.”

Mr. Qado claimed that church officials had even barred women from giving birth at a hospital on the outskirts of town to prevent Shabak children from being issued Bartella identification documents. Church officials say the problem is that the hospital is not recognized by Iraq’s Health Ministry.

Across the street from St. George church, the sisters Amina and Mohinta Sha’ana were supervising Shabak construction workers. The sisters, who are Christian, are retired schoolteachers, and Amina Sha’ana is building a new house in a former olive grove burned by ISIS.

“This land is more precious than gold,” Amina Sha’ana said. “It is the land of my father and grandfather.”

The Shabak, she said, “are good people. But relations are complicated.”

Karam Rafael, 25, one of the few Christians who moved back to Bartella, is among a small minority of young people who do not want to leave. He and his friends scraped up the money to open a small coffee bar.

“My brother and sister are in the U.S., but when I think about emigrating my stomach hurts,” he said. “I can’t leave my traditions, churches and friends behind.”

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