THE SAD REALITY IS THAT IT IS VERY RARE TO HEAR ABOUT GOOD NEWS COMING FROM IRAQ THESE LAST FEW DECADES. THIS WILL HOPEFULLY NOT BE THE CASE FOR 2021, ESPECIALLY AS THERE IS A VISIT TO THE MIDDLE EASTERN COUNTRY BY POPE FRANCIS ORGANISED FOR MARCH THIS YEAR. ACN SPOKE TO LOCAL CHRISTIANS ABOUT WHAT THIS VISIT MEANS TO THEM.
By Conn McNally
There is hardly a place in the world that has felt the impacts of Christian persecution in recent decades as much as Iraq. Just twenty years ago there were around one and a half million Christians living in Iraq, but in recent years this number has fallen to about half a million. The majority of Iraqi Christians are members of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Recently, the Christian heartland in the north of Iraq was ravaged by ISIS. Throughout this, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has stood shoulder to shoulder with our Iraqi Christian brothers and sisters and have worked with them to ensure a future for Christians in Iraq.
It was under this context late last year that the Holy Father announced that he will be visiting Iraq. This visit is organised to take place 5th-8th March. One of the destinations for the Holy Father is the town of Qaraqosh, also known as Baghdeda. The town is located around 30 kilometres from the city of Mosul. Before ISIS invaded, Mosul was the Iraqi city with the largest proportion of Christian residence. Quaraqosh was also occupied by ISIS and was largely left in ruins. In 2016 the town was liberated from ISIS. Christians began to return to their homes. About 43% of the Christian families who originally inhabited the town have returned. ACN provided aid to the local Christians, in order to help them rebuild and repair their homes and other buildings in the town.
ACN spoke with some local Christians about the upcoming papal visits. The local Christians are hopeful the visit by Pope Francis will lift people’s spirits and give everyone a morale boost. Others hope that the Pope’s visit will raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians. Many of the Christians are looking forward to the opportunity to receive a blessing from Pope Francis, and also the possibility of thanking the Pope for his prayers and the aid he has given the Persecuted Church. Local people are also hopeful that Pope Francis visits Al-Tahira church in Mosul. The church is still partly in ruins from the Islamist occupation of the city, but it still remains one of the most historical churches in the area and a source of local pride.
Father Ammar Yako, a 44-year-old Catholic priest, summarised local hopes for the visit:
“The papal visit is the thing we have longed for most of all here. It will be a great blessing. We have a great yearning to see him. What gives added importance to this visit is the so very vulnerable situation that we are suffering as Christians in Iraq. There are many reasons for this vulnerability, including the aftermath of what IS left behind, the enormous destruction which has led in such large measure to the emigration of the Christians. There are many problems weighing on us. But when he comes to visit us, he will give us new hope and confidence and some relief from this burden. In addition there is the fact that the security situation in Iraq, and especially the political situation, is so unstable, so we are hoping that when the Pope does arrive they will guarantee his security in the way that they should.”
The path to recovery for Iraq’s Christians is going to be long and difficult. A lot has been done already but a lot remains to be done. Iraqi Christians find strength and comfort in the fact that they know Our Lord is with them always. ACN invites our supporters to also continue to stand beside our Iraqi brothers and sisters in their time of need, and to offer prayers that they continue to remain steadfast in the Faith.