According to one of the most influential bishops in the country, the Pope’s decision to visit Iraq may prove vital to saving its ancient Christian community from extinction.
Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, which is the capital of semi-autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq, told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that Iraq’s Christians had “waited more than 20 years” for a Papal visit.
Amid reports that Iraq’s Christian population has fallen by at least 80 percent within a generation to less than 150,000, Archbishop Warda said: “To have His Holiness come to visit us now may very well be the thing that saves us.”
He added: “We are a people that have been marginalized to the very edge of existence. Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has always been close to the marginalised and now he will come among us to show this.”
He added: “Certainly, this visit will provide real strength and courage to the Iraqi Christians to remain in our homeland and rebuild here.”
The archbishop went on: “By choosing to come here to Iraq, the first trip of His Holiness since the beginning of the pandemic, Pope Francis will be shining a light on us for all the world to see.” He then added: “The Pope will find his people waiting for him, ready for him to walk with them, showing… his love and support for those who are poor and persecuted.”
Stressing the importance of Mosul on the Pope’s itinerary, Archbishop Warda said: “This city has such huge symbolic significance – with some of the oldest shrines and monasteries. There is so much destruction. By going there and to other places such as Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plains, he is sending a message of hope.”
A Visit of Great Importance for All Religious Minorities
ACN worked closely with Archbishop Warda providing emergency relief after 120,000 Christians fled following the Daesh (ISIS) occupation of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains in 2014 and, after the militants’ defeat, the charity helped families return by repairing homes, churches and community centres.
Archbishop Warda said: “When it comes to providing support, both physically and spiritually, people get tired of continuing to help but the Pope’s visit will show that there is still so much more that we can do.”
Highlighting the potential impact of the Pope’s trip on inter-faith relations, the archbishop said: “The visit will not just be important for the Christians, but for all the minorities of Iraq, including the Yazidis with whom we have shared so much pain in these last years.”
Syriac Catholic Archbishop Nizar Semaan of Hadiab-Erbil told ACN on Monday, December 7, that the Pope’s visit “is just the greatest news because [the trip] will have a big impact on the lives of Christians in Iraq.”
For his part, the international president of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International), Thomas Heine-Geldern: “This visit is a sign of hope for afflicted Christians who have been facing a ‘Way of the Cross’ of persecution and discrimination for decades. This journey is another sign of the closeness of the Pope and his concern for the Christians of the Near East. His visit will strengthen them and restore their courage to remain in their homeland. “Without the support of the Holy Father and the Universal Church, these communities present in the cradle of Christianity are threatened with extinction.”
Between 2014 and 2017, ACN provided more than $49 million dollars in emergency aid to support nearly 11,800 displaced Christian families, who fled the Nineveh Plain during its invasion by the Islamic state. Since then, it has made possible local ecumenical initiatives to help rebuild Christian areas destroyed by the Islamic state, including homes, churches and community centres.