Pope Francis's visit to Iraq this week will encourage Christians to stay in the country and remind the public of the multi-religious country they once lived in, members of the diaspora faith told The National.
For nearly 2,000 years Christians have inhabited what is modern day Iraq, their roots can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia, the “cradle of civilisation”.
The Pope is set to visit historic religious sites across the country which are vital to understanding the antecedents of the Christian faith.
"It is a message to all Christians in Iraq to encourage them to stay in the land in which their ancestors first took root," said Yasmin Philip, an Iraqi Christian from London.
The Pope will carry a message saying that “Iraq must not be empty of Christians as they were the first religion on this land,” she added.
Followers of the ancient religion have faced severe persecution during the last decade especially after ISIS swept into Mosul and surrounding sites in 2014, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee the city after the militants threatened to kill them unless they converted to Islam or paid a 'protection tax'.
Although there are no official figures of how many Christians remain in Iraq, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako estimated that 1 million Christians have left Iraq since 2003 and about 400,000 remain.
Many Iraqi Christians abroad hope the Pope’s visit will push some to return home.
"The visit gives Iraqi Christians strength and belief in their country," Ashoor Bakoos, an Iraqi Christian living in London, told The National.
Mr Bakoos, 39, who left Iraq in 1991, said the Pontiff’s visit is not only for the benefit of Christians “but for uniting the country to say that we are all one.”
"My father has met Pope Francis and the previous one and both have strong beliefs on having unity in the world, not just with one race or religion- this what they want," he said.
Pope Francis’ visit will be his first foreign trip abroad since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the first papal trip to Iraq.
He is expected to arrive in Baghdad on March 5 with a four-day, six-city visit that will take him to historic sites around the country.
The visit shows Pope Francis’ intentions towards Iraq, that Christians still have an existence, especially that followers of the faith were “extracted from their roots”, Sawsan Naamo, an Iraqi Christian living in the UK, said.
It also presents an opportunity to show that there are no differences between Iraq’s multicultural, multi-religious groups, Mrs Naamo said.
“In the past we never felt there was a difference between the Christians and Muslims in Iraq, there was nothing of this sort,” said Ms Naamo, who left Iraq nearly 30 years ago.
“I went to a Christian school and my some of my classmates, the Muslim girls, used to come with us to the Chapel and pray. There was no difference at all,” she said.
Ms Philip, who lived in Baghdad until the early 1990s, said she experienced no discrimination and felt she was an equal to other Iraqis from different faiths.
“No-one knew what religion their neighbour was,” she said.
Ms Philip, who is a patient pathway co-ordinator at London's Kingston Hospital, said she feels members of her faith group across the world and those who are in Iraq finally have some support.
“The Pope visiting Iraq is huge, even though I will not be there, I felt emotional and teary, and felt that I have support from him,” she said.
Christians have been an easy target for terrorists, she said, adding that it is one of the main reasons why the Pope is going to Iraq next week.
Although Lina Evan, 42 year-old housewife living in San Diego, is sceptical that the visit will change much for Christians who are still living in Iraq.
“Whenever we hear of new developments or are promised that changes will occur, nothing happens,” she said.
Ms Evan said the Pope’s visit is a “good move” especially that not many Christians are left in the country.
“It gives some hope that someone as senior as the Pope can go to Iraq and show followers that they are not alone."
"All we have is hope” she said.