By Dale Gavlak
Pope Francis’ planned visit to Iraq, from March 5 to March 8, is complex on many levels. COVID-19 cases are rising, as are terrorist incidents in recent weeks. The historic but greatly diminished Christian community, says it needs a boost, however, from the Catholic leader after three-years of devastation carried out by militants of the Islamic State group, and the pontiff also wants to reach out to the Muslim world by meeting with a highly-revered Shi’ite cleric.
Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq marks his first foreign trip after a 15-month gap due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s also the first-ever papal visit to this biblical land.
For years, the pope expressed his concerns publicly for the plight of Iraq’s Christians and its many religious minorities, including the Yazidis, who both have suffered at the hands of Islamic State militants and sectarian violence.
The Reverend Emanuel Youkhana, an Iraqi priest in the Assyrian Church of the East, told VOA that Christians, now only numbering between 150,000 and 400,000, down from 1.5 million in 2003, are greatly encouraged by the Pope’s visit. Iraqi authorities are responsible for his safety.
“The Christians are very much optimistic because it’s a sign of hope, a sign of solidarity despite the pandemic, despite the security challenge. So, it’s a strong sign of solidarity. There are security challenges, this is quite clear. We pray, we hope there will be nothing,” he said.
Father Youkhana runs the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, which assists displaced Iraqis, including Yazdis, around Dahuk in the north and the Ninevah Plain, where tens of thousands were forcibly displaced by Islamic State militants from 2014 until 2017. He says that less than half of the original inhabitants of the Ninevah Plain, the historic Christian heartland of Iraq, have returned.
Some families remain displaced in the northern Kurdish region, or have fled abroad, he says. While others fear the Shiite militias that have confiscated their properties.
The pope will visit Mosul, badly destroyed by Islamic State militants, where rebuilding efforts are now under way at the city’s iconic al-Nouri Mosque and Our Lady of the Hour Church.
French Dominican Rev. Olivier Poquillon is helping to oversee the work. He praised the effort where Muslims, Christians and other communities “work together, to do something positive together.”
“We know it will be a challenge for everybody to rebuild trust among persons, families, communities. But this is our faith. We believe in a God of mercy, and we believe we have this humanity as a common responsibility,” he said.
Pope Francis also will meet one of Shi’ite Islam’s most authoritative figures, the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, as part of his efforts to embrace all of the Islamic world. The pontiff will also participate in an interreligious meeting in the southern town of Ur, the birthplace of the Old Testament Patriarch Abraham, recognized as the father of faith in one God by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.