Cardinal says papal visit to Iraq will encourage return of Christians

Author: Claire Lesegretain

Publication Date: 9/12/2020

Source: La Croix International

Cardinal Louis - Raphaël I - Sako has never stopped hoping that this day would come: the announcement of a papal visit to his martyred homeland of Iraq.

The Vatican issued the official statement earlier this week, announcing that Pope Francis is planning to travel to several places in the Middle Eastern country next March, as long as there are no further complications due to the current coronavirus pandemic.

And the 72-year-old cardinal, whose official title is Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, is confident that the papal visit will be an important turning point for Iraq.

He spoke about his hopes in this exclusive interview with La Croix's Claire Lesegretain.

La Croix: When were you informed that Pope Francis was planning on going to Iraq?

Cardinal Louis Raphaël I Sako: I have been aware of it for six weeks already. A team came here to check the places where the pope will visit and everything went very well with the government.

The publication of this news on Monday created immense joy among all Iraqis, Christians and others.

This visit comes at a time when Christians in Iraq, but also in Lebanon and Syria, are living in anxiety, precariousness and anguish because of terrorism and the pandemic.

This announcement gives them great moral and spiritual support, especially since this will be the pope's first visit abroad after more than a year without travelling.

Can you tell us more about the stages of this papal visit?

This visit will last almost four days, from March 5-8.

Francis will arrive in Baghdad and then travel to the plain of Ur, the land of Abraham.

He is scheduled to preside over an inter-religious celebration there where he'll speak about the figure of Abraham, the father of the three monotheistic religions.

He will undoubtedly encourage fraternity, living together and respect.

Those are spiritual and moral values that are so dear to his heart.

Then in Mosul, from where thousands of Christians were expelled by Daech in August 2014, the pope will hopefully condemn this Islamist ideology that kills and denies the right to exist.

Francis will then travel to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he will meet with the authorities and will undoubtedly celebrate the Eucharist.

From there, he will go to Karakoch, where he will address the Christians in the villages of the Nineveh Plain who have returned after having been driven out of their homes.

His message everywhere will be that evil has no future. He will call for peace and freedom, and encourage Christians to stay and trust.

Simply his presence, I think, will be a sign for those who have suffered so much and for the many who are wondering if they can really return home.

Today, about 60 percent of the Christians who fled Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in 2014 have returned. The remaining 40% have gone to the West or have settled permanently in Kurdistan where they have found work and bought a house.

We do not have exact statistics, but we estimate that there are 500,000 Christians in Iraq today, the majority of whom are Chaldeans.

How will you prepare for the papal visit?

We have formed a committee for that. We already had a meeting on Nov. 4 at the patriarchate.

We are all determined to do everything to make this visit a success for the good of all Iraqis.

The main problem today is our difficulty in moving around, due to health constraints.

Our churches are now open, but they were closed until October because of the pandemic.

What about security concerns during the pope's time in Iraq?

We are certain that the government will do everything to guarantee the life of the pope.

Here, no one is against him. He is a man of peace who loves everyone. During this trip, God will protect him.

What is the current situation for Iraqi Christians?

We are preparing to celebrate Christmas. There will certainly be many people in the churches, as usual, and we will also make sure to broadcast our celebrations on television.

At this time, the prospect of the pope's visit will be a consolation for many.

Link: https://international.la-croix.com/news/religion/cardinal-says-papal-visit-to-iraq-will-encourage-return-of-christians/13469

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