BY JULIO CACHILA(Photo : Aziz1005/Wikimedia/CC) A Catholic Church in Baghdad, Iraq.
Iraq passed a bill last week formally recognizing Christmas day as an annual public holiday throughout its territory.
The Iraqi parliament unanimously agreed to approve the bill, which is seen as a significant move in relation to Pope Francis’ scheduled visit to Iraq on March 5 to 8, 2021. Pope Francis’ travel to Iraq next year would be the first visit of a pope in Iraqi soil.
The bill was approved just a few days after the pope announced his plans to visit the country.
“Parliament voted on our request to consider Christmas a holiday for all Iraqis,” the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako announced, according to Asia News. He also said Parliament’s decision on the matter was to the church’s “great satisfaction.”
Sako thanked and invoked God’s blessing upon Iraqi Pres. Barham Salih, Parliament Speaker Muhammad al Halbousi, and the Council of Representatives “for the vow cast for the good of their fellow Christians,” Fides reports.
In October, Sako met with Pres. Salih and presented his request to have Christmas day recognized as a holiday in the country. Salih was open to the proposal, and during the meeting, he acknowledged the role of Christians in rebuilding Iraq.
In the same meeting, Salih also reaffirmed his commitment to help displaced Christians return to their homeland, especially those who fled Mosul and the Nineveh Plain during the years of ISIS occupation.
Christmas day was declared as a “once only” holiday 12 years ago, but the declaration has not been renewed since then, although Christians are allowed to take the day off. Only the province of Karkuk has considered Dec. 25 as a holiday in recent years.
Msgr. Basilio Yaldo, auxiliary of Baghdad, told Asia News that the Parliament decision was a “historic vote, because today Christmas is truly a celebration for all Iraqis. And this happens for the first time.”
Yaldo added that Christmas as a holiday now “applies to everyone, and it will be for years to come.”
“It is no longer a temporary measure to be renewed every year. This is a message of great value and great hope for Christians and for all of Iraq and is inevitably linked to the pontiff’s apostolic journey to our country in March. This is one of the first fruits we hope will bring many others in the future,” Yaldo continued.
According to International Christian Concern, the recent approval of the bill declaring Christmas as a holiday is an important step for Iraq because attacks targeting Christians usually tend to peak during this time. Government recognition of Christmas day sends the message that the presence of Christians in the country is also officially recognized as legitimate.
Christians in Iraq have suffered from intense persecution for decades. In 2014, ISIS committed genocide against Christians, prompting many of them to leave their homeland.
As they now face the process of rebuilding their nation and their lives, Christians are seeing small improvements.
“We’ve seen churches being rebuilt in places that were hit hard by ISIS, particularly in the Nineveh Plain, which has been exciting,” Samuel (not his real name) of the organization Redemptive Stories told Mission Network News. “In one area that we visited, the church was completely damaged, and they’re hoping to have it ready for Easter.”