ERBIL, Iraq (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis' Iraq trip has triggered a tidal wave of mockery on social media, with Muslims gleefully announcing that the pontiff has surrendered to Islamic supremacy, an Iraqi Muslim convert has told Church Militant.
The Kurdish response to Francis on the final day of his visit has been largely negative, as "many Kurds see the pope as a person who flatters wicked people like President Erdoğan," observed Nasser Aza, an academic from Erbil.
While the pope's visit has certainly created a feel-good atmosphere among Catholics, Aza is predicting that "the collateral damage for evangelism among Muslims" will be monumental.
Aza, who came to faith in Christ in 2014, told Church Militant that approximately 7,000 to 10,000 Muslims had converted to Christianity from Islam in the last decade, and, as in Iran among Shia Muslims, many more souls are ripe for conversion.
Speaking through an Arabic translator, Aza lamented the fact that only "small pockets of Catholics who are influenced by evangelicals are engaged in evangelization, while the Orthodox churches in Iraq have no interest whatsoever in evangelism."
Aza, an amateur Arabist who had been brought up to believe that the Koran was linguistically inerrant, said that he began to have doubts about Islam after detecting a number of linguistic errors in the Koran.
When a Christian gave him a copy of the New Testament in Kurdish, Aza, who is of part-Kurdish heritage, broke down emotionally after reading it. "God speaks my language!" he exclaimed, overwhelmed by the fact that the Word had not only become flesh in Jesus but also was written in his own mother tongue.
Keen to reach out to Muslims with the gospel, Aza said he was "grieved that Francis' interfaith engagement was counterproductive for Christians like him seeking to carry out Jesus' Great Commission to proclaim the good news and declare Jesus as the only savior."
"Muslims on social media are triumphantly declaring that the pope has surrendered to Islam," Aza said. "The mockery is incredible as the Muslims say Francis is bowing to Muhammad as his prophet as he goes on Hajj [Muslim pilgrimage] to the birthplace of the Muslim Ibrahim."
"Of course, the majority of the converts don't care and have no interest in the papal visit to Iraq because they strongly feel the pope does not represent them or their passion for the gospel," he added.
"And while Catholics are rejoicing thinking that the pope will bring about betterment in their situation and pull them out of persecution, the situation for all Christians will worsen because the pope is seen as giving in to Islam and abdicating his role as ... head of the Church," Aza predicted.
"Muslims don't distinguish between Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostals and evangelicals," he explained. "Anyone who is not a Muslim is fair game for hostility and persecution."
Dr. Martin Parsons, independent consultant on freedom of religion and global persecution of Christians and radical Islam, told Church Militant he agreed with Aza's assessment of the situation.
"Christians in Iraq have suffered terribly over the last two decades with the specific targeting of Christians and churches. This has included the kidnapping and murder of bishops and archbishops and the bombing of over 100 churches," Parsons said.
Parsons, an academic who wrote his doctorate on Christian-Muslim relations in the border region of Afghanistan-Pakistan, said he had questions about the papal visit:
Over the last 20 years, at least three-quarters of the country's historic Christian population have fled the country, and five years ago, even the U.S. State Department said that Christians in Iraq were facing genocide. So, if this is a pastoral visit, one wonders why the Vatican is only now organizing it, nearly four years after the liberation of Mosul?
On the evening of Francis' visit to the Kurdistan region and to the Kurdish capital of Erbil, Aza updated Church Militant with responses from local people.
"In general, simple people expect the pope to support peace in the Kurdish regions and to pray for security and civil peace. There are religious extremist circles that do not welcome him. The Catholic community is very happy to have a man of peace and love," Aza said.
At the same time, many Kurds view the pope with suspicion for his diplomacy with President Erdoğan, "who contributed to the occupation of Kurdish areas in northern Syria [like Rojava] and supported Islamic-extremist armed groups and did not contribute to spreading peace," he added.
"Many of the Kurds referred to the pope making a mistake in welcoming Erdoğan in 2018 and giving him a necklace with a picture of the King of Peace, Jesus Christ. Therefore, they said they wouldn't be going to see him, and they blame the pope in their hearts," he noted.
Aza also revealed that a Kurdish convert had appeared on television asking Pope Francis to represent the Kurds in their political struggle but that the convert was met with a severe backlash.
"Under the circumstances and given the way which the pope has conducted himself in diplomatic relations, there has been a strong reaction of anger against the pastor who asked for the pontiff's help," Aza pointed out.
The young convert sent Church Militant links on Facebook and Twitter to locals commenting on the pope's visit, explaining that, while the establishment media was fully supporting the papal visit, the true pulse of responses on the ground could be found on social media.
On a single Sky News Arabia post, which, compared to other social media had some of the most positive responses to the papal trip, over 5,000 commenters expressed their views in Arabic on Pope Francis.
However, the majority of comments were negative, leading one Arab Christian to write: "When I read the comments, I am sure that the Arab region will remain in the dark for the next 100 years."
(Nasser Aza's original name has been changed to protect his identity. As an "apostate" from Islam, he faces the death penalty as prescribed by all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence.)