Pope Francis declares Iraq visit ‘pilgrimage of peace,’ bringing focus to dwindling Christian population after ISIS

Pope Francis walks alongside Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhem upon his arrival in Baghdad on March 5, 2021, on the first papal visit to Iraq. Pope Francis began his historic trip to war-scarred Iraq, defying security concerns and the coronavirus pandemic to comfort one of the world's oldest and most persecuted Christian communities. | VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis described his first visit to war-torn Iraq amid a raging pandemic and security concerns as a “pilgrimage of peace,” bringing focus on that country’s dwindling Christian population that suffered mass killings by the Islamic State terror group and a mass exodus.

“The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all,” said Pope Francis after arriving in Baghdad Friday, addressing Iraqi President Barham Salih and other officials and diplomats at the Presidential Palace, The Telegraph reported.

“May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance! May room be made for all those citizens who seek to cooperate in building up this country through dialogue and through frank, sincere and constructive discussion,” added Francis, who has been working to improve relations with the Muslim world, according to La Croix.

“It is essential to ensure the participation of all political, social and religious groups and to guarantee the fundamental rights of all citizens. May no one be considered a second-class citizen,” The Wall Street Journal quoted the pope as saying.

Francis added, “Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world,” according to The Associated Press.

“The religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to eliminate. Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious cooperation in the life of society,” he continued.

Speaking to reporters aboard the papal plane, Francis said his first travel outside of Italy in more than a year was also symbolic. “This is an emblematic journey. It is also a duty to a land tormented by many years,” he was quoted as saying.

In a video message broadcast on television in Iraq days before his visit, the pope said, “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.”

Salih, who is from Iraq’s ethnic Kurdish minority, responded to the pope’s address, saying, “The East cannot be imagined without Christians. The continued migration of Christians from the countries of the east will have dire consequences for the ability of the people from the same region to live together.”

There were about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, the traditional birthplace of Abraham, in 2003, and the number has reduced to roughly 250,000, according to estimates, thanks to violence, kidnappings and killings by ISIS from 2014 to 2017 and a resulting mass fleeing.

Even after the defeat of ISIS in December 2017, Iraq’s Christians didn’t find the cradle of Christianity livable and continued to leave the country that became a land of militias.

Christians are also concerned about their safety, as they don’t have traditional tribal networks for self-defense. 

The Rev. Johnnie Moore, president of The Congress of Christian Leaders and Commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, compared the pope’s visit against the time when ISIS was gaining territory in Iraq.

“The Oct. 2014 cover of the ISIS magazine showed their grotesque black flag flying over Vatican Square. Today, the Pope arrived on a pilgrimage of peace to the Iraq they tried (& failed) to destroy,” Moore tweeted.

Francis was greeted with excitement by Christians and others, who lined the road to cheer his motorcade. “The pope’s visit is a real-world embodiment of the love of Jesus to our troubled land, a place of violence and conflict,” said Saleem Mansour Gorgees, a church deacon in Erbil, told The Telegraph.

A UAE-based independent body, the Muslim Council of Elders, also praised the pope for his visit.

“Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq serves as a great opportunity to promote peace and is a message of solidarity with victims of violence in the region and around the world,” the Council said in a statement, according to Vatican News. “After years of destruction and war, we believe that the historic visit will help heal the wounds of the Iraqi people, while offering hope for a brighter future for Iraq and the region, one which will be filled with tolerance and coexistence.”

On Saturday, Francis is scheduled to meet with Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. On Sunday, the pope is expected to honor the dead in a Mosul square surrounded by shells of destroyed churches and meet with Christians who returned to the Qaraqosh town.

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