For Card Sako, US-Iran tensions threaten papal visit to Iraq

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The patriarch is concerned about the escalation between Washington and Tehran. A conflict would precipitate the situation across the Middle East. As Iraqi Christians and Muslims look forward to the apostolic journey, the latter remains uncertain, whilst confusion and suffering affect the country.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – The growing tensions between Iran and the United States, which could lead to open warfare, threaten Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq, this according to Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako.

In expressing concerns about a conflict that could precipitate the situation in the entire Middle East, the Chaldean Patriarch acknowledged that the pontiff’s apostolic journey is “uncertain” at present. “We don’t know how things will go,” he told the Catholic News Service. “Maybe the pope is waiting” to see what unfolds over the next few months before confirming his decision.

Christians and Muslims, the cardinal went on to say, are “expecting this visit,” which, like the recent papal visit to the United Arab Emirates, will be a “phenomenal event.”

In Iraq, “We are afraid when we hear people saying that there will be war” whose consequences will be unpredictable and disastrous. However, “I hope that we will not have war and that the Iranians will consider what Iraq has experienced.”

For the prelate, “After 15 years, Iraq is suffering and there is confusion”. Instead of a shared notion of citizenship, sectarianism prevails. “Christians have suffered a lot.”

Tensions between Iran and the United States have been triggered US President Donald Trump’s decision in May 2018 to scrap the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) ??signed by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Since then the White House has imposed the toughest sanctions in history, boosted US military presence in the region, and tried to stop Iran’s oil exports, affecting primarily Iran’s population.

The Chaldean patriarch issued warnings before about possible repercussions of a conflict on Iraq’s stability.

With this in mind, he sent a letter to the embassies of the two countries in Baghdad, asking their leaders to “adopt wisdom” that “will lead to the peace that the region urgently needs” because the Middle East cannot “withstand” another war.

When the cardinal invited the pontiff the latter “expressed his wish to come to Iraq” despite the uncertainty. Most Iraqis, irrespective of religion, are also looking forward to the visit, but events in the region might cause a postponement.

Before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraq’s Christian population numbered between 1.5 and 2 million people. Today the community has shrunk to around 200,000, three quarters of whom are Chaldean. They too are subject to sectarian violence, targeted murders, and abuses.

After the tragedy of the Islamic State group, which sparked a cycle of hatred and heinous crimes, Iranian-backed Shia militias constitute a new threat to the survival of the community, especially in the north.

For many Iraqi Church leaders, including the Archbishop of Basra, the papal visit represents an opportunity for Iraq to start fresh, putting together its “pieces” and addressing issues like education, development and citizenship.

What is more, the presence of the pontiff, in addition to bringing “joy and emotion“, will be a source of “immense comfort” to Iraqis regardless of ethnic-religious affiliation or religion.