The Pope’s visit in March is a source of “emotion and an enormous grace.” Hopefully, a meeting with al-Sistani in Najaf will take place. After major steps and gestures towards Sunni Islam, now “it is time to do the same with Shias.” The Pope “will find the warmth of the people, their love, a welcome that will be a source of great emotion.”
Baghdad (AsiaNews) – Iraqi Christians are preparing to “celebrate Christmas twice: first with the birth of Jesus and second with Pope Francis’s visit,“ said Chaldean patriarch, Card Louis Raphael Sako, speaking to AsiaNews.
The two festive moments will be experienced in a “dimension of continuity” until the Argentine pope undertakes his apostolic journey to the Arab country in early March, an event that is a source of joy for Christians and Muslims alike and a “sign of hope“ for refugees in Mosul and Nineveh.
“In our homilies, we bishops will try to explain the sense of the Pope’s presence, which is the same of Christmas: Jesus born outside his home, like a displaced person, who does not lose hope nor his bond with his family . This is why we must celebrate: Because it is also the return of Christians to their lands, their cities, their homes.”
“I heard about the trip in October,” Cardinal Sako explained, “and I immediately felt a strong emotion and an enormous grace. We began to work on the visit, obviously behind the scene, with vigour and heart.”
Of course, several technical details still need to be worked out, and some fine-tuning must be done at a methodological and practical level “but we will do our best to welcome the head of our Church, who is also a father to us.”
Pope Francis’s trip to Iraq will be a journey of dialogue, encounter, and sharing between Christians and Muslims (and Jews) under the banner of a common bond with Abraham, the father of believers, and his land, Ur of the Chaldeans.
Between 5 and 8 March 2021, the pontiff will visit Baghdad, Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan), Mosul and Qaraqosh on the Nineveh plain, although no final details are available given the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.
For the patriarch, “Despite all the challenges and hardships, not least the health emergency caused by the novel coronavirus, the pontiff will find the warmth of the people, their love, a welcome that will be a source of great emotion.”
The visit will be “comforting given past and present suffering” and will bring “confidence in the future, as well as a renewed urge to change for the better, to face and solve problems, towards equality and living together.”
To this end, the visit will remind people “to be fellow citizens and brothers of a common home, Mesopotamia, the land of Abraham, Ezekiel, Jonah . . . Many biblical passages are set in Iraq, a holy land like Palestine with one of the oldest Churches.”
Speaking about the reaction of Muslims to the announcement, the Chaldean primate notes that “if that can be imagined, they are even more enthusiastic than Christians. In Ur, in all probability there will be an inter-faith ceremony, a ritual in the presence of Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims, and Yazidis. We asked that the Pope be able to stop in Najaf, to meet with [Grand Ayatollah] al-Sistani, the highest Shia religious leader.”
In the past, the Argentine pontiff undertook great “gestures” with Sunni leaders, including the signing of the historic document on brotherhood with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb in Abu Dhabi in February 2019.
Now “it is time to do the same with Shias,” said Cardinal Sako, thanks also to the extraordinary charisma of this pope,” his desire for “dialogue, for opening doors that seem closed. We saw this in the meeting with the Yazidi leader and in the appeals to defend the Uyghurs in China and the Rohingya in Myanmar.
“He is a simple man, one who is not afraid to meet others straight up. Muslims greatly admire his gestures, and they tell us that he is a special pope and that many steps have been taken towards dialogue.”
Lastly, speaking about Christmas during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Patriarch said that “churches will remain open. I will go and visit them. Trees have been decorated and we shall celebrate the festivity, while respecting health restrictions on spacing, hygiene, and masks. The coronavirus will not stop Christmas, the Mass will be celebrated several times and will also be broadcast on TV and social media.”