Pope Francis arrives for a visit with the community at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, Iraq, March 7. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Iraqi Christians hope to build on papal visit

By  Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service
  • November 17, 2021

ANKAWA, Iraq -- Nahla and Valentina like to stop and pray at Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in the centre of this small majority Christian community. The grounds of the church once sheltered several hundred Christians who were forced to flee their homes in 2014 when Islamic State militants attacked Mosul and surrounding villages some 80 kilometres away.

The tents and caravans that dominated the property are gone, but the women say many Christian families remain unable to return home.

“Although we are from Ankawa, there are still many displaced in our midst from Mosul, Qaraqosh and other towns, but they are now in apartments, having to pay rent and wondering if they will ever be able to go back,” said Nahla.

“The Pope gave us a lot of hope with his visit in March. It was wonderful to see our churches united in welcoming him and enjoying the many Masses, but in practical ways, we don’t feel much has changed in the circumstances. Being separated is so difficult.”

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil and other Church officials acknowledge the pain that many still feel, but Warda said the papal visit helped to inspire and recharge Iraq, which has struggled to regain a firm footing after years of conflict and sectarian violence.

He and others point to demonstrable, positive developments experienced by Iraqi Christians since Pope Francis’ visit, but recognize the challenges the Christian community still encounters and wants to overcome.

“Pope Francis brought a message of hope, courage and bravery, coming in the middle of the coronavirus to a not very stable country. We cannot expect him to solve all the problems and heal minds, but he reached out in goodwill to those suffering, whether Christians, Yazidis or Muslims,” Warda told CNS at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Ankawa.

“Yes, there are still camps for internally displaced people, but there is life in the areas liberated from the Islamic State. This reality can’t be separated from the story of Iraq. Pope Francis came as a pilgrim and stood with us in solidarity.”

Ankawa, once a Christian enclave of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, was recognized in October by the governing authority as its own official district.

Warda believes the papal visit helped to raise Ankawa’s profile in the eyes of the government. Prime Minister Masrour Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government recently referred to Ankawa as a home for “religious and social co-existence, and a place for peace.”

“Pope Francis’ visit highlighted the historical presence of Christians in Iraq, and Ankawa was at its centre, with the papal Mass celebrated at the largest Christian outdoor gathering. Here, we are working to build the future. The culture of co-existence found here should be a model,” Warda said.

Christians have existed in Iraq since the time of Christ, but their numbers have dwindled from some 1.5 million before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Estimates put the current Christian population between 250,000-500,000.

“Unfortunately, we might be unable to restore Christian demography, but we need to and can restore the Christian role and presence through these educational centres, hospitals and other services. We have started to touch lives, but we need to do more,” said Fr. Emanuel Youkhana, who runs the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq.

“Through his moral influence, the Holy Father gave a clear message to Iraqi politicians and the government: All Iraqis must count,” said Youkhana,

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