Papal visit to Iraq: ‘Hopefully this will motivate the international community to help’
AID TO THE CHURCH IN NEED (ACN)i is encouraged by the outcome of Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq, which ended March 8. “The trip has already changed how the majority society in Iraq views Christians They have understood that Christians are not just guests from the West, but that they have their roots there and are truly a part of the country and the region.Cardinal Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, has assured me of this,” reported Regina Lynch, director of projects at ACN, upon her return from the trip. She had travelled on board the papal plane as the representative of the Assembly of Organizations for Aid to the Eastern Churches (ROACO). “We hope that it will be possible to maintain this understanding.”
Lynch would like to see further steps taken to improve the situation of the Christians in the wake of the papal visit. “The interfaith encounters were particularly significant. Of utmost importance was the meeting with the spiritual leader of the Shia Muslims in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. After all, he holds influence over large numbers of Shiite Muslims in the country. These were very positive steps.”
According to Lynch, the emotional highlight of the trip was the Pope’s visit March 7 to Baghdeda (Qaraqosh), a city with a majority Christian population. “The joy of the people was catching. Thousands lined the streets to see the Pope as he drove past. Religious sisters were literally dancing on the rooftops. These were people who had come back after being forced to leave their homes because of ISIS. What the Pope saw here were truly the living stones of the Church in Iraq.”
She then talked about how deeply moved she was by the witness presented by the Pope of a Christian woman whose son had been killed by ISIS. “She has forgiven the perpetrators. She believes that this is what her faith called her to do. That was a very powerful moment.” Lynch explained that in several speeches given by Pope Francis he clearly emphasized that this was the true calling of the Christians in Iraq. “They are to be instruments of peace and reconciliation. In their country. That is the witness that they offer all of society. And in this, it is not about how big the numbers of Christians are. A mustard seed is enough,” Lynch said.
According to the ACN representative, the important thing now is to take advantage of the attention that the country has garnered through the papal visit. “Worldwide, the interest in the visit was huge. The visit was covered extensively by the international media. I hope that this will motivate the international community to help Iraq. Because the challenges that need to be faced remain enormous.” Lynch explained that there is a fear among many Christians that ISIS will return. “The Iraqi government finally has to take steps to ensure effective safety. They must replace the militias with a powerful police force. Furthermore, the Christians who are returning to their hometowns after fleeing ISIS need perspectives for their livelihood.”
Meanwhile, Lynch expressed hope that the worst period of Christian migration from Iraq may be over. “I spoke with the Syriac Catholic Archbishop Nizar Semaan of Erbil. He has high hopes that the members of his community will remain, at least in the the autonomous Kurdistan Region. In any case, the Pope’s visit encourages the Christians to do so.”
In the meantime, ACN will continue to support the hard-pressed Christians of Iraq. “At the moment, the focus of our work is rebuilding the churches and church institutions that were destroyed by ISIS. For this reason, it was a moment of great joy for us, and particularly for our donors, when, in his greeting to the Pope, the head of the Syriac Catholic Church, Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Yonan , expressly thanked ACN for its support in reconstruction,” Lynch said.
“At the same time, we have initiated a new and very ambitious program at the Catholic University in Erbil to help students receive a good education. But it is particularly important to strengthen people’s faith. Therefore, another focus of our aid is the Church’s pastoral work with young people and families. We have now seen just how young this Church is.”
Lynch talked about how she left Iraq richly rewarded and encouraged. “I was deeply moved by the faith of the people there. A woman said to me, ‘When ISIS came, we were ready to die for our faith.’ What would I do in such a situation? Would I say yes? The faith of the Christians in Iraq has a dual message for us Christians in the West: Let us be proud of our faith and not hide it.”