Iraq’s President Barham Salih is received by Pope Francis at the Vatican, November 24, 2018. Photo: Office of the Iraqi Presidency
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraqi President Barham Salih has officially invited Pope Francis to Iraq just weeks after the head of the Roman Catholic Church said he hopes to visit the war-wracked nation next year Salih’s office made the announcement on Thursday after the Iraqi president met with the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, H.B. Cardinal Mar Louis Raphael I Sako. In a letter addressed to the pope, Salih said such a visit would bring “immense comfort” to Iraqis still recovering from the four-year was with the Islamic State group (ISIS), which saw widespread persecution of Iraq’s Christian minority. “Over the last four years Iraq has been a place of war and immense suffering,” Salih wrote. “The most recent onslaught by terrorist groups has brought unimaginable destruction to Christians and other Iraqi communities.” “With the liberation of our land comes the long process of healing, reconciliation and rebuilding. As your Holiness has always shown a deep care and concern for the vulnerable and suffering, I know that your words of encouragement and grace will be of immense comfort to the many Iraqis who are still recovering from the hardships of conflict,” he added. Salih said the pope’s visit would be welcomed by the whole “mosaic of religions and faiths” in Iraq who believe in peaceful coexistence. “Not only will Christians welcome your Holiness, but also Muslims, Yezidis and other people of faith, who are bound by a commitment to a better future based on the values of peace and dignity,” the Iraqi president wrote. “Iraq has been home to a vibrant and diverse Christian community for nearly two thousand years. While recent wars have depleted their numbers, we are committed to ensuring that Iraq’s Christians can once again enjoy security and prosperity,” he added. Pope Francis told an audience at the Vatican on June 10 he hopes to visit Iraq in 2020. “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 said. 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. Salih met Pope Francis at the Vatican on November 24, 2018. Nechirvan Barzani, then-prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, also met the pope in January that 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 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. 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.