Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq is vital to encourage Christians to stay in the country as their numbers are dwindling rapidly, the head of Iraq’s Catholic Church said on Thursday.
Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans and head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, told The National the planned visit would carry messages to remind Iraqis of peace and coexistence.
“It will place an emphasis on the true meaning of brotherhood and citizenship; we are only family and it will encourage Christians to stay in the country and to integrate and build confidence between each other towards a better future. It will give hope,” Cardinal Sako said.
The government in Baghdad described the papal visit in March as a “historic event” that sends a message of peace to Iraq and the whole region.
Cardinal Sako likened the pope’s Iraq visit to the one that he embarked on in Abu Dhabi in 2019. That visit culminated in the historic declaration of fraternity and peace between nations, races and religions.
The declaration was signed the pontiff and Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar.
“The visit to Iraq comes during an exceptional time. The country is the axis of culture and religion, it is a holy land, its people have suffered a lot,” Cardinal Sako said.
The pope will send a message to Iraqis that they must “stop fighting each other” and push them to “love and help each other to build their country and live in dignity and freedom”, he said.
Pope Francis is expected to visit Baghdad, Ur, a city linked to the Old Testament figure of Abraham, as well as Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh in the Nineveh plains, between March 5 and 8.
It will be his first trip in more than a year after all his overseas visits were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The visit to Mosul and Qaraqosh, the biggest Christian town in the north, will be to encourage Christians to stay and to rebuild trust with their neighbours,” Cardinal Sako said.
Cardinal Sako said the pope might also visit the holy Shiite city of Najaf to meet Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric.
“We hope he can visit Najaf – it has an impact on the Iraqi situation and also because of the place of Najaf and its authority. The authorities in Najaf are welcoming the idea,” he said.
There only about 500,000 Christians left in Iraq following sectarian warfare after the 2003 US-led invasion and the seizure of a third of the country by the extremist group ISIS in 2014.
“The situation is getting better, there are no attacks against Christians, but the situation is bad for all Iraqis,” he said.
Christianity in Iraq dates back to the first century of the Christian era, when the apostles Thomas and Thaddeus are believed to have preached the Gospel on the fertile flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Cardinal Sako, 72, was born in Zakho in northern Iraq and has played a central role in interfaith dialogue in the country.
He was elevated to cardinal in June 2018 by the pontiff in a move that was seen as a show of support to Iraq’s declining Christian population.
The College of Cardinals forms the senior ecclesiastical leadership of the Catholic Church, offering counsel to the pope and electing his successor.