(Baghdad) “The guns fell silent!” Pope Francis set out at the beginning of the first papal visit in the history of war-torn Iraq that is now facing an epidemic, a salute to the “left” Christians despite everything.
Under high protection, circulating alone and masked under strict containment to combat COVID-19, the 84-year-old Pope thanked “bishops and priests, for staying close” from a minority that in twenty years has grown to 1.5 million members to fewer than 400,000 due to violence and crises.
He began by remembering the plight of the Yazidis, a small mystical community that was martyred by the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, before returning to one of the most painful events in the modern history of Christians in Iraq.
In the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baghdad, which was targeted on the eve of All Saints’ Day 2010 with the most bloody hostage-taking operation against Christians in Iraq (53 dead), he spoke about “our dead brothers and sisters.” […] Those who advance in the cause of their beatification, “because they” have paid a heavy price for their devotion to the Lord and his Church. ”
This is the first appearance in a church in Iraq among believers of the wandering Pope, but it will be denied to them on his first trip in 15 months due to COVID-19.
During his stay – which will end on Monday at the end of 1,445 kilometers traveled mainly by air to avoid the areas the jihadists are still hiding in – the Pope will also reach out to Muslims by meeting Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a supreme authority for many Shiites in the country. Iraq and around the world.
The leader of the 1.3 billion Catholics in the world raised all the hot topics in Iraq to his senior officials, including President Barham Salih, who extended the official invitation to this unprecedented visit and received a “valued guest” by the Iraqis.
“One cannot imagine a Middle East without Christians,” begged Saleh, himself a Kurdish Muslim.
“Stop the violence! ”
The Pope said: “Stop violence, extremism and intolerance.” Enough of “corruption” too, which is why hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demonstrated for months at the end of 2019. At that time, the Pope urged Iraq to stop suppressing its youth to demand justice.
Once again he insisted on the need to “establish justice”.
And that “no one is considered a second class citizen”, especially Christians – 1% of the population in this Muslim country – nor the Yazidis are victims of “foolish and inhuman barbarism”, according to the Pope.
He also referred to the “very ancient presence of Christians on this earth” where Abraham was born according to tradition, calling for their “participation in public life” as “citizens with full rights, freedom and responsibility.”
An ambitious program
The program is ambitious. Najaf, Ur, Erbil, Mosul, Qaraqosh: Every time, only a few hundred people will be seen, with the exception of Sunday mass at a stadium in Erbil, Kurdistan, in the presence of several thousand believers.
Baghdad confirmed that it had taken all security measures, “ground and air,”. In an unexpected sign of relaxation in Iranian-American tensions that still lurk in Iraq, one of the small groups that sometimes claim to launch missiles targeting Americans announced a truce during the papal visit.
Regarding foreign interference, the Pope called on “nations” not to “impose political or ideological interests” on Iraq.
For Saad Al-Rassam, a Christian in Mosul, a city still under reconstruction after the war against ISIS, this trip comes on schedule in a country that has seen its poverty rate double to 40% by 2020. “We hope the Pope will explain to the government that it should be. To help his people. ”
In addition to the security or economic difficulties afflicting the 40 million Iraqis, Christians denounce discrimination and the government’s failure to help reclaim their homes or lands, which are often seized by militiamen – and sometimes Christians – or relatives of politicians.
Shia hand stretched out
Despite everything, the Pope is urging Christians to stay or return to Iraq, where there are 400,000, compared to 1.5 million twenty years ago.
An invitation to return is “mandatory”, but “difficult”, notes Cardinal Leonardo Sandry, who heads the “Congregation of Eastern Churches” in the Vatican and accompanies the Pope, because Iraq has been in crisis for 40 years.
According to the Association for Helping the Church in Need, only 36,000 of the 102,000 Christians who left northern Iraq have returned. Among them, a third of them said they plan to leave the country by 2024 due to fear of militias and due to unemployment, corruption and discrimination.
A historic moment on Saturday when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 90, receives the Pope in the holy city of Najaf (south), and has never appeared in public.
The Supreme Pontiff will also participate in a prayer in Ur with the notables of the Shiites, Sunnis, Yazidis and Sabaeans.
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