By Courtney Mares
A day before he departs for Baghdad, Pope Francis sent a video message to the Iraqi people, saying that he was coming to Iraq as “a pilgrim of peace.”
“I am coming as a pilgrim, as a penitent pilgrim, to implore from the Lord forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism, to beg from God the consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds,” the pope said in the video message released March 5.
“Yes, I am coming as a pilgrim of peace, seeking fraternity and prompted by the desire to pray together and to walk together, also with our brothers and sisters of other religious traditions, in the steps of Father Abraham, who joins in one family Muslims, Jews and Christians,” he said.
Pope Francis expressed his desire to see his “dear brothers and sisters in Iraq” and to visit “an ancient and extraordinary cradle of civilization.”
The pope said that he felt “honored to meet a martyr Church,” and expressed gratitude to Christians in Iraq “who have witnessed to their faith in Jesus in the midst of very hard trials.”
“You still have in your eyes the images of destroyed houses and desecrated churches, and in your heart the wounds of affections left behind and abandoned houses,” he said.
“I would like to bring you the affectionate caress of the whole Church, which is close to you and to the tormented Middle East and encourages you to move forward.”
In the video message to the Iraqi people, Pope Francis said two phrases in Arabic: “As-salamu alaykum,” which means “peace be upon you” and “shukran,” which means “thank you.”
“Dear brothers and sisters, I have thought so much of you in these years, of you who have suffered so much, but you have not been despondent. To you, Christians, Muslims; to you, peoples, like the Yazidi people, the Yazidis, who have suffered so much, so much; all brothers, all. Now I come to your blessed and wounded land as a pilgrim of hope,” the pope said.
“From you, in Nineveh, the prophecy of Jonah resounded, which prevented the destruction and brought a new hope, the hope of God. Let us allow ourselves to be infected by this hope, which encourages us to rebuild and start over.”
Pope Francis’ March 5-8 trip to Iraq will take him from excavations of historical biblical sites dating back thousands of years to churches where Catholics suffered horrific terrorist attacks only a few years ago.
He will visit a Catholic church in Baghdad on March 5 that was the site of a suicide attack by the Islamic State during Sunday Mass in 2010 in which more than 50 people were killed.
The following day he will meet with Muslim and other religious leaders in Ur in southern Iraq, which the Bible records as the birthplace of Abraham.
“Let us not give up in the face of the spread of evil: the ancient sources of wisdom of your lands direct us elsewhere, to do as Abraham who, while leaving everything, never lost hope; and trusting in God, he gave birth to descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven,” Pope Francis said in his video message.
“From you, millennia ago, Abraham began his journey. Today it is up to us to continue it, with the same spirit, along the paths of peace together,” he said. “For this reason, upon all of you I invoke the peace and blessing of the Most High. And I ask all of you to do the same as Abraham: walk in hope and never stop looking at the stars. And I ask everyone to please accompany me with prayer. Shukran.”