By Rudaw Pope Francis walks in the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s square as he celebrates the Pentecost mass, June 9, 2019. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli / AFP Pope Francis walks in the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s square as he celebrates the Pentecost mass, June 9, 2019. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli / AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, told an audience at the Vatican on Monday he hopes to visit Iraq next year. “An insistent thought accompanies me when I think about Iraq, where I want to go next year, so that it can look to the future through peaceful and shared participation in the construction of the common good,” Pope Francis told an audience at the Vatican, AFP reports. Speaking to representatives from the Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches (ROACO), the pope said he hopes Iraq “does not return to the tensions which come from the never-ending conflicts between regional powers.” Although he has made the promotion of good relations between Christians and Muslims a cornerstone of his papacy, with recent visits to Abu Dhabi and Morocco, Pope Francis has declined several offers to visit Iraq in recent years owing to the poor security situation. Nechirvan Barzani, then-prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, met the pope at the Vatican in January 2018. Iraqi President Barham Salih also met Pope Francis later that same year. Christianity is one of the recognized religions of Iraq, but internal disagreements between Orthodox and Catholic sects have left the groups politically fragmented, in a country where religion often aligns with politics. The last census in Iraq was in 1987, when 1.5 million Christians were counted. Prior to the rise of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in 2014, local groups estimated the Christian population stood at 400,000-600,000. Roughly half have left Iraq since 2014, and around 130,000 sought shelter in the Kurdistan Region. Iraqi Christians were forced to flee their towns and villages across the Nineveh Plains and from the city of Mosul when ISIS militants launched a lightening campaign through the region. The jihadists gave Christian residents of their newly conquered territories three options: convert to Islam, pay a heavy religious tax, or die. The majority chose to flee, taking refuge in the Kurdistan Region. Thousands flocked to Ankawa – a predominantly Christian neighbourhood in the north of Erbil city. Here, churches like Mar Yousif opened their doors, becoming makeshift camps until the government and aid agencies stepped in to build facilities for the displaced. Since the liberation of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains in 2017, Christian families have faced a new dilemma: should they go back and try to rebuild their homes destroyed in the fighting, emigrate abroad, or start over in the Kurdistan Region. Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, was elevated to cardinal in the Church in June 2018 in a bid to increase the number of cardinals in places where Christian populations are dwindling. Bashar Warda, the archbishop of Erbil’s Chaldean Catholic Church, told Rudaw English in a recent interview that Iraq’s Christians urgently need housing assistance if they are to thrive – not just survive. US Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Catholic, last year announced $70 million in funding to help preserve Iraq’s religious minorities on the Nineveh Plains.