Iraqis in Lebanon say Pope's visit to homeland gives them hope

Christians who fled violence yearn for peace that will allow them to return to Iraq

Pope Francis's trip to Iraq is fuelling hope among members of Lebanon’s Iraqi community that the first-ever papal visit to their home country will bring stability and an end to years of violence that prompted many to flee.

“This is a very important visit, especially during these difficult times when Arab countries are generally going through crisis, turbulences and protests,” said Layla Hamadan, an Iraqi immigrant.

The Pope’s visit comes at a time of rising coronavirus infections and renewed violence in Iraq, which is caught in the middle of rising tensions between Iran and the United States.

The security instability that has engulfed the country since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 saw the country’s Christian community dwindle from around 1.5 million to less than 400,000 today, according to some estimates.

The Vatican described the Pope’s four-day visit, which kicks off on Friday, as an act of solidarity with Iraqi people of all backgrounds, a message that appeared to resonate with Iraqi immigrants in Lebanon.

"The Pope's visit is [a message] of support for not only Iraq but to the whole Arab nation," Mustapha Al Shammari told The National. "I hope the country will once again enjoy a sense of normalcy without killings and explosions."

Sporadic security incidents have been a recurring theme in Iraq in recent years. Only days ahead of the Pope’s visit, a US civilian contractor died from a heart attack when rockets landed on an airbase housing US and Iraqi troops. The attack on Wednesday came less than a week after US airstrikes on Iran-backed militias in neighbouring Syria.

“We wish for security and stability so we will be able to go back to Iraq. No one is happy to live abroad,” Mr Al Shammari said.

Like hundreds of thousands of other refugees in Lebanon, many Iraqis are struggling to make ends meet. The small Mediterranean nation, home to more than 1.5 million refugees from countries across the region, is facing its worst economic crisis in decades. The crisis has been compounded by rampant corruption and bickering between Iran’s allies and their political rivals.

But Riad Al Najafi, another Iraqi immigrant, is hopeful that change will follow the first visit by a leader of the Catholic Church to Iraq.

"It's not out of the blue," he told The National. "I think it will pave the road for a new positive phase for countries across the region."

 
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