Despite being decimated by ISIS, Iraqi Christians prepare to welcome Pope Francis
ERBIL (IRAQ) – Christians in Iraq are busy cleaning churches and practising hymns ahead of the much anticipated papal visit to the nation. Pope Francis is slated to undertake a four-day visit to Iraq next month in spite of the coronavirus and security risks.
The minority community numbering in several hundred thousand was almost finished off by al Qaeda’s rise in the early 2000s and later by the Islamic State, which brutally persecuted them as well as members of other faiths and sects from 2014-2017.
The papal visit is a recognition of the suffering of Christians in Iraq where free worship is now allowed once again. Many Christians have returned to their homeland after persecution ceased.
“We hope that after the pope’s visit, the situation of Christians will improve,” said Amer Abdelahad, a Christian in Erbil, who has registered to attend the papal mass along with 10,000 other believers on March 7.
“Christians in Iraq suffered a lot over the past years, they are emigrating. The pope will come and see this reality on the ground,” said Amer, who is accompanied by his wife and daughter.
The 84-year-old pontiff, who is the spiritual leader of Roman Catholics around the world, will visit Baghdad, Ur – a city linked to the Old Testament figure of Abraham – Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh in the plain of Nineveh.
Last month, a twin suicide attack in the capital left 32 dead. It was a reminder of the ongoing security threats despite the defeat of the Islamic State and a reduction in militant violence.
Although Catholic and Orthodox believers have returned to their homes, which they fled during the upheaval over the past two decades, there are some who foresee problems and are looking to leave.
One of the main organisers Father Dankha Joola said more than 8,000 have registered for the papal mass. His biggest challenge will be implementing social distancing at the outdoor stadium where the pontiff will say mass. Although the stadium can accommodate 30,000, only one third will be admitted because of the pandemic restrictions.
The priest is being helped by Daniella Rafiq, one of more than 200 volunteers. For her, the visit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the pope.
“Over the last few years, whenever there was a meeting with the pope in different countries, especially with young people, we were deprived,” she said, referring to difficulties faced by Iraqis in the past in obtaining visas to travel.
Father Naswhan Cosa, who is in charge of the papal ceremonies, said the mass would be unique with prayers in Italian and an orchestra and choir of about 80 local volunteers rendering hymns in Arabic and Syriac spoken by Christians in northern Iraq.
Before celebrating mass in Erbil, Pope Francis will visit the city of Mosul and nearby Qaraqosh, which were under Islamic State occupation for three years.
The once-thriving Christian population of Mosul has been reduced to not more than 70 families. In Qaraqosh, a relatively large number of Christians have returned, partly because of the role of the Church in leading reconstruction efforts and mobilising Christians.
There were dozens of volunteers at the Grand Immaculate Church, the biggest in the nation, which doubled as a shooting range for fighters of the IS before being destroyed by fire. They are pleased at the prospect of welcoming the pope.
Some volunteers wiped the stone floor, stopping only to dance to the accompaniment of Christian songs that resonated through the stone edifice, which has since been restored.
“The pope’s visit is not only for Iraq’s Christians, but for the whole country,” said Father Francis, who was putting up posters of the pope around the streets.